Quotes & Sayings

We, and creation itself, actualize the possibilities of the God who sustains the world, towards becoming in the world in a fuller, more deeper way. - R.E. Slater

There is urgency in coming to see the world as a web of interrelated processes of which we are integral parts, so that all of our choices and actions have [consequential effects upon] the world around us. - Process Metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead

Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem says (i) all closed systems are unprovable within themselves and, that (ii) all open systems are rightly understood as incomplete. - R.E. Slater

The most true thing about you is what God has said to you in Christ, "You are My Beloved." - Tripp Fuller

The God among us is the God who refuses to be God without us, so great is God's Love. - Tripp Fuller

According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater

Our eschatological ethos is to love. To stand with those who are oppressed. To stand against those who are oppressing. It is that simple. Love is our only calling and Christian Hope. - R.E. Slater

Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger

Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton

I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – Anon

Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII

Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut

Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest

We become who we are by what we believe and can justify. - R.E. Slater

People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – Anon

Certainly, God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater

An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater

Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann

Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner

“Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14) or, conversely, “I AM who I AM Becoming.”

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton

The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens, we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – Anon

The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul

The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah

If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – Anon

Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord

Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another, so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

To promote societal transition to sustainable ways of living and a global society founded on a shared ethical framework which includes respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, universal human rights, respect for diversity, economic justice, democracy, and a culture of peace. - The Earth Charter Mission Statement

Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and unencumbered rational inquiry are compatible with the practice of Christianity or even intrinsic in its doctrine. It represents a philosophical union of Christian faith and classical humanist principles. - Scott Postma

It is never wise to have a self-appointed religious institution determine a nation's moral code. The opportunities for moral compromise and failure are high; the moral codes and creeds assuredly racist, discriminatory, or subjectively and religiously defined; and the pronouncement of inhumanitarian political objectives quite predictable. - R.E. Slater

God's love must both center and define the Christian faith and all religious or human faiths seeking human and ecological balance in worlds of subtraction, harm, tragedy, and evil. - R.E. Slater

In Whitehead’s process ontology, we can think of the experiential ground of reality as an eternal pulse whereby what is objectively public in one moment becomes subjectively prehended in the next, and whereby the subject that emerges from its feelings then perishes into public expression as an object (or “superject”) aiming for novelty. There is a rhythm of Being between object and subject, not an ontological division. This rhythm powers the creative growth of the universe from one occasion of experience to the next. This is the Whiteheadian mantra: “The many become one and are increased by one.” - Matthew Segall

Without Love there is no Truth. And True Truth is always Loving. There is no dichotomy between these terms but only seamless integration. This is the premier centering focus of a Processual Theology of Love. - R.E. Slater


Note: Generally I do not respond to commentary. I may read the comments but wish to reserve my time to write (or write from the comments I read). Instead, I'd like to see our community help one another and in the helping encourage and exhort each of us towards Christian love in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. - re slater

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Rob Bell's Search For A More Forgiving Faith


I should state from the outset that Rob Bell was my pastor for all the years that he was at Mars Hill Church. And that I, amongst others, witnessed week-by-week, the growth of his message and honest turmoil of his heart, as it yo-yo'd between the goalposts of doubt and faith. To this came an Emergent Christian message imperfectly formed because of its newness as both a movement and as a contemporary re-expression of Christianity's more ancient, orthodox message. And as everyone knows, in the heat of creation, percolating actions and words are but synthesizing barometers for a more complete statement of faith decades latter when many other voices have helped lend definition and thematic development - even as it is occurring today 15 years later (if we use 1998 as Emergent Christianity's starting point).

For his trouble, Rob found himself to be one of the early public aspirants trying to sort out just what Emergent Christianity was, what it promised, and where it would attend. He had few others to rely on except his own heart and council. Especially when said movement was a once-in-a-500-year type of Renaissance occurrence experienced by no one living within the halls of the church. Shortly, Emergent Christianity distinguished itself from other, older sectarian movements and themes, to what it really was - a radical overhaul of Christian perception, worship, practice, ministry, method, and mission. It's driving impetus was that of a Christian faith become fractured under the its own weight of secularism that was driving away many a God-fearer before its religious hypocrisies, hardness of heart, unmerciful message, and dogmatic idealisms.

One of those troubling themes was the myth of biblical inerrancy, a late-1980s addition to the banners of Evangelicalism wishing to maintain its own forums of evangelical statement and beliefs primarily led at the forefront by Calvinism and Reformed Theology (each reticent since the time of the Reformation 500 years earlier when they were developed under Luther and Calvin). However, this type of systematic statement was never resident in the older forms of Christian orthodoxy under first Century Christianity. Nor to the early church under the patriarchal fathers as they recognized the newer canon of the New Testament alongside the older canon of the Jewish Scriptures, ascribing to each the divine revelation of God that was infallible and authoritative where it concerned God's message of salvation and redemption.

Moreover, with the appendage of inerrancy to the definition of the bible Reformed/Evangelical theology could than ascribe to itself a more literal bible, than to a literary bible bearing comparative literatures, genres, and histories. Through literalism has come a more wooden understanding of God and human history that is more mythic-like than real. But through the contested literary bible comes the lively interaction between text, culture, and disciple, that lends itself to the mystery and movement of God. Which allows for wonder and appreciation for a revealed revelation unlike its polytheistic neighbours and stands alone despite even today's mortal declarations of man and mouse.

Ironically, this type of theology is only deemed liberal to an inerrantist believing his own misstatements and artificial boundaries while decrying all others as libelous. But to the orthodox Christian, a non-inerrant theology is not a liberal theology, but an orthodox theology. It still maintains very strong ties to historical orthodoxy and still remains centered around Jesus, His person, message and mission. Hence, The New Yorker's use of liberal is an inadvertent judgment placed upon the larger world of Christianity. Perhaps the better term is the one we just used, that of historic orthodoxy, where the newer concept of inerrancy actually is the lone trespasser here. For many Christians, the actual usage of the term liberal refers to a theology which reads the bible as just another human document culled from many years of ancient origins and manuscripts; and when reading it, disbelieving its revealed theology of God, of God's message of love and redemption, of Jesus as God Incarnate come to atone for sin and enact new life.

Lastly, Emergent Christianity pushes back from Evangelicalism's stricter, more conservative, display of Christian brawn held forth through its empowered religious institutions, pulpits, and media. It is rebellious to the idea that God can be so simply described and understood by caustic statements of threats and judgment. Emergent Christianity would rather describe an incomprehensible God who gives Life-and-Light to our sinful heart. That emphasizes an open, indescribable future filled with the love of God, and the hope that this divine love brings to humanity. That sees the intrusion of God's kingdom rule into the rules and statuary laws of mankind when lived out in obedience to His Word. That leads out with sacrifice and service, and not by pulpiteering words of fiery, condemning rhetoric so misguided to God's plans and purposes. Whose faith is found in the compassionate deeds and works of faith (orthopraxy), and not in words and logistical statement alone (orthodoxy, strictly defined).

And yes - to a conservative Evangelic these would be liberal endeavors. But to those leaving the Evangelical church for a more progressive, if not more postmodern, Christian faith, it is a return to historical Christian orthodoxy that is in looong need of being updated, and redefined in light of contemporary movement and human history. Not by the older definitions of past humans eras found under the Age of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, nor Secular Modernism. But by today's more relevant standards using all the conceptual tools which we have at our disposal through the evolutionary sciences and human studies. To a re-application of what a postmodern, authentic, participatory faith may look like apart from man's religious decrees, dogmas and rules, surrendered to Jesus fully and completely in obedience to God's will and mission.

This is the promise of Emergent Christianity that Rob Bell found himself struggling to envisage when he discovered all his religious past was being nuked by his disbelieving heart troubled by speaking God's word more truly than he had been speaking it. It led him unto a path of disbelief for awhile that eventually reconstructed itself into something larger, more beautiful than he could believe possible in his many doubts and spiritual depression. And for the truly Emergent Christian, we each have gone through similar periods of doubt and unbelief until the Spirit of God renews our impassioned hearts by God's love and grace. Redemption points of salvation found in the cross and resurrection of Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. It's relational above anything else that defines faith.

Thus, in the midst of brokenness and destruction new terms and expressions have been sought to re-express an ancient faith foundered upon the jagged rocks of religion. Jesus also spoke of this when confronting Jewish tradition with God's life-giving words. Providing long drinks of divine, life-giving, well-water to the parched hearts and minds seeking divine assurance of peace and hope. And like Jesus, Rob, as well as other emerging Christians, have been rejected for teaching against the foundations of religious customs become lost within their own boundary sets of reimaged words and conscripted speech. But true emerging orthodoxy holds on to Jesus - and to God's Word - no matter the accusations from its more conservative establishment of traditionalists and self-imposed reformists. Refusing that God's divine revelation be altered, or impregnated, with the moiling words of man too short on faith and insight, and too zealous in defense of religious beliefs and its own traditionalist mindset.

At the last, love can be the only denominator to healing the wounds of man - not only in society but in the world of the church as well. Irenic debate will occur, and well it should, because the Christian faith is a precious commodity that should ever be mined, and never lost within the dark confines of time and ecclesiastical distance. So, whether Rob speaks perfectly, or imperfectly of theology, is not the message here. The message is his journey of belief fractured by his former faith in man's religion until it was rebirthed in Jesus - birthing within him a renewed message filled with mission and wonder. Giving to him the Spirit's words of God's love lost in a wilderness of our own making until redeemed by the hand of God.

To Rob's vision will come additional theologians alongside Rob, who also will speak to the biblical themes of divine love and rescue, filled with godly exposition and spiritually-bourne labour. Of which Relevancy22 is but one small example of many to come in a worldwide explosion of divine grace in its global message of hope to doubters, disbelievers, cynics, and the broken. For without our doubts and brokenness can never come God's power of salvation, without first losing ourselves within the abilities of our strength and will. The church is no less different. Until it breaks and finds its faith by losing its faith, it cannot go forward. Humility must lead all. Especially epistemological humility. Then will faith come, because it is within the breast of every man that God's image is birthed.

R.E. Slater
February 14, 2013

*ps - occasionally I will add emendations to the column below (highlighted in orange) pointing to past articles we had at one time reviewed under various topics and issues. Overall, I am a supporter of Rob Bell, but not necessarily his theology at all times. Nor has this website tolerated false comments about his beliefs or faith.

The Hell-Raiser
November 26, 2012
A megachurch pastor’s search for a more forgiving faith.
On a Sunday evening last year, Rob Bell pulled up outside a stone building in Philadelphia, peered at the stained-glass window above the entrance, and frowned—the place looked like a church. Bell is the founder of Mars Hill Bible Church, a megachurch in West Michigan, and one of the most influential Christian leaders in the country. But when he goes on tour, to talk about his evolving faith, he tries to avoid churches, because he doesn’t want to cause trouble for any staffers brave enough to book him. “I don’t know where I’m anathema and where I’m considered to be on the good team,” he says. “The landscape is so confusing, in churchyworld, that I just gave up trying to navigate it.” The previous night, he had appeared at Lupo’s, a venerable rock club in Providence, where there was a stern warning posted backstage: “No spitting or throwing drinks on the stage or equipment.”
Bell is a provocateur, but a mild-mannered one, with a pinched, nasal voice that somehow projects calm. He is forty-two, tall and lean, and, in both his fastidiousness and his fondness for black clothes, he evokes Steve Jobs; indeed, Bell sees no reason that a sermon shouldn’t have the same cool, frictionless appeal as an Apple product launch, or a TED Talk.  For much of his career, Bell was affiliated with the evangelical movement, which has been the most robust Christian tradition in America for half a century. To many casual observers, the aughts seemed like a triumphant era for evangelicals. In the elections of 2000 and 2004, evangelical voters provided crucial support to President Bush, and Rick Warren became the symbol of a sophisticated new kind of megachurch. In fact, the popularity of evangelical Christianity probably peaked sometime in the early nineteen-nineties, and may now be in decline. Some Christian leaders have predicted an evangelical collapse, as aging congregations fail to attract young adults. Bell is now loosely aligned with a cohort of pastors worldwide who are searching for ways to move beyond old-fashioned worship. (This movement is sometimes called the emerging or emergent church, but many pastors, including Bell, disavow the term.) Bell talks often about the demand for a different kind of church, one that can keep pace with the rising “waterline of culture.”
For his Philadelphia engagement, Bell had been booked into the Baptist Temple—which, he discovered, with some relief, had been deconsecrated and turned into a performing-arts center. He went inside for sound check and a quick nap; soon, a technician cued up his pre-show mix (Blur, Midnight Oil, Starsailor), and the hall started to fill up. Bell attracts an earnest crowd of young people, full of questions about the church they once loved unquestioningly. For many of them, Bell is a reassuring figure: proof that it’s possible to challenge certain articles of faith without leaving behind faith itself. (In Philadelphia, one college-age fan greeted him by saying, “If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t still be a Christian.”) Onstage, Bell told self-deprecating stories about botched sermons and humbling discoveries, and he cited the Dalai Lama as a paragon of Christian grace. In Bell’s monologues, Jesus comes across as a rebellious mystic, opposed to any form of small-mindedness. “He seemed to have no problem confronting the hypocritical religious establishment,” Bell said. “And he told these extremely mysterious, enigmatic stories that ended in such a way that sometimes they wanted to kill him and sometimes they wanted to crown him.”
Out front, on the sidewalk, a preacher had come to speak out against what he called “the lies of Rob Bell.” Without an amplifier, or any evident need of one, he issued precisely the sort of fierce warning that Bell takes pains to avoid: “It is a broad way that leads to eternal damnation, and many will enter into it.” This line, a standard weapon in every street preacher’s arsenal, arises from Matthew 7:13, part of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus sets down a series of precepts and aphorisms. But “eternal damnation” might be a misleading translation: the original contains no reference to eternity, and, instead of “damnation,” the more common rendering is “destruction.” The Greek word is apoleia, which can also mean “waste,” or “loss.” (It recurs later in the Book of Matthew, to describe the Disciples’ indignant reaction when Jesus is anointed with precious oils: they ask, “Why this waste?”)
To anyone looking for loopholes in the doctrine of damnation, the Bible offers plenty, and last year Bell compiled many of them, in a book called “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.” Bell says that the book, his fifth, was inspired by a congregant who insisted that Mahatma Gandhi, because he wasn’t a Christian, must be suffering in Hell. In the opening pages, Bell recalls his incredulous response:
Gandhi’s in hell?
He is?
We have confirmation of this?

A different kind of pastor might have replied, modestly, that Christian eschatology—the study of the afterlife—offers few certainties. Instead, Bell set out to answer the question. He considered the possibility that Hell might not exist, or that it might be empty, or that it might exist on earth, or that it might be temporary. Maybe, he thought, Hell is an unpleasant place where posthumous repentance is possible and, in the fullness of time, inevitable. He never answers his own question about Gandhi, but he strongly suggests that the answer couldn’t possibly be yes. He quotes I Timothy 2: “God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of truth.” And then he poses the impertinent question around which the rest of the book revolves: “Does God get what God wants?”
Even before it was published, “Love Wins” caused a sensation. The word went out that a prominent megachurch leader had rejected Hell, thereby embracing heresy. The outcry helped make the book a best-seller, even though a number of Christian bookstores refused to stock it. The central message of “Love Wins” is that the church needs to stop scaring people away, and, in publishing the book, Bell hoped to spark a movement toward a more congenial, less punitive form of Christianity. He knew that some Christian leaders would object, but he didn’t foresee how much. His detractors stated their case on blogs, from pulpits, and, eventually, in books. “Love Wins” appeared in March, 2011, and by summer there were half a dozen rebuttals in print, including “God Wins,” by an editor at Christianity Today, and “Erasing Hell,” by Francis Chan, a fellow-pastor. John Piper, a prominent theologian and minister who expounds the value of “objective Biblical truth,” posted a terse message on Twitter: “Farewell Rob Bell.”
In the end, “Love Wins” did turn out to be a kind of farewell. The members of Mars Hill found themselves having to answer for their membership in a church that was suddenly notorious. Eventually, Bell decided that it would be best for everyone if he left the church he had founded; in September, half a year after the publication of “Love Wins,” he told the congregation that he would be stepping down. By the time Bell greeted his fans in Philadelphia, a few months had passed, but he was still considering his own uncertain future. He ended his talk by delivering a lesson on openness to change. “You have been gripping tightly to how it was,” he said. “You calm yourself, and you breathe deeply, and you open your palms, and you say, ‘O.K., God. Apparently, this is ending.’ ”
“Everything I do, it probably all flows out of something that’s been there for as long as I can remember,” Bell says. “Like, a deep-seated, sort of old-school Jesus belief.” He grew up in a Christian household in Okemos, Michigan, outside Lansing. Sometime around his tenth birthday, he kneeled next to his bed, flanked by his parents, and said the first prayer he truly meant. He invited Jesus into his heart, he remembers, and he thought, "Now I am a Christian, and God loves me, and when I die I’ll be with God forever." His new identity made him feel slightly removed from the world around him: he was an avid soccer player, but he learned to keep quiet when the other boys sang anatomically precise songs on the team bus. Bell had a vague sense that Jesus was a radical, and he liked the idea that Christian goodness, in a not always good world, might take the form of resistance, or defiance.
Bell’s parents both attended Wheaton, a Christian college outside Chicago, and Bell never considered going anywhere else. When he arrived, he says, “there were all these smart, funny kids who were Christians—I was absolutely blown away.” He formed an alternative-rock band, which he hoped to turn into a career. In the summer, he worked as a waterskiing instructor at a Christian camp, where, one week, he was pressed into service as a replacement preacher. For a few days, he worried about what he would say, but, when he stood before the campers, his thoughts were interrupted by a reassuring message: “Teach this book, and I will take care of everything else.”
After Wheaton, Bell enrolled at Fuller Theological Seminary, in Pasadena, which offered classes in systematic theology and ancient Akkadian, none of which excited him. Compared with the people around him, he was a theological conservative, more interested in spreading the message of the Bible than in contesting its interpretation. “I just wanted to preach,” Bell says. “I was totally single-minded.” He was hired as a youth pastor at a local church, where he was guided by his belief that faith is best expressed in deeds, not words. One day, he took his charges to a working-class neighborhood, where they knocked on doors and asked startled strangers if they could help them with anything. A beleaguered mother gratefully dispatched them to buy some milk.
Bell loved California, and he imagined that he would probably settle there. But then, during a trip home, he agreed to accompany his parents to Calvary Church, in Grand Rapids. Calvary was a big, nondenominational congregation, led by a great orator named Ed Dobson. Bell remembers being astonished: Dobson was a small man—“like, a hundred pounds, soaking wet”—with big hands and a deep voice, willing to hurdle the flower display in front of the pulpit, if it would help make a Biblical teaching stick. Bell befriended Dobson, and wrote him letters from California. When Dobson finally saw Bell preach, he was impressed. Bell’s style is conversational but theatrical, full of meaningful pauses that make listeners lean forward, and Dobson persuaded the leadership at Calvary to give him a chance. “Not all of the elders felt like I did—some of them were concerned that he was inexperienced,” Dobson says. “But I told them, ‘Look, he can communicate. He really doesn’t know the Bible, but, if we can add the Bible to his communication skills, we’ll have a winner.’ ”
At Calvary, Bell was put in charge of the Saturday-night young-adult service, which sometimes included rock bands and informal discussions. In 1998, he left to start his own church, Mars Hill, taking with him hundreds of Calvary congregants and the proceeds of a special offering, which came to about thirty thousand dollars. By 2000, attendance had grown to a few thousand, and the church soon found a home: a sprawling former mall, right off Interstate-196 in Grandville, a southwestern suburb of Grand Rapids.
At Mars Hill, Bell decided, there would be no dress code, no choir, no pulpit. He preached from a low, unadorned stage in the center of the room. And he cultivated a reputation as an unusually hip pastor: a young guy in slim trousers who loved Radiohead and artisanal bicycles. Bell didn’t think too hard about the theology of Mars Hill; he just knew that he had a knack for getting people excited about the Bible. In his early sermons, he combined emotional appeals with straightforward interpretations of Scripture. He did a series of “blood and guts” sermons, which explained sacrificial laws of Leviticus in gruesome detail. On the topic of sex, he warned dating couples against doing “things that only are proper within marriage.” And, in his eagerness to win new souls, he didn’t always avoid threats. “Jesus is your only hope, and God cannot accept casual, passive worship of him,” Bell told the congregation. “You either are headed to Heaven or you’re headed to Hell. It’s just that simple.”
Bell’s goal was to make worshippers, and himself, feel gently provoked. “A lot of preachers preach on their favorite subjects,” he said. “I would prefer to preach on everything that makes me squirm, because it makes me raise the bar—and then God really has to show up.” Bell talked to his listeners as if he were inaugurating them into a select club of the smart and the righteous, and congregants loved feeling as if they were part of a burgeoning movement. By the early aughts, Mars Hill’s membership was heading toward ten thousand.
The first few years of Mars Hill should have been thrilling. Bell was barely thirty, and suddenly he was one of the country’s most acclaimed young preachers. He was married—his wife, Kristen, had been one of his best friends at Wheaton—and his first son had just been born. But, as the church was thriving, Bell was digging into Biblical history, learning about the Jewish traditions that shaped Jesus’ life, and about the competing agendas that shaped his message after his death. “It started to make sense and become real,” he recalls. “Oh, wait—Herod actually lived! And a lot of what Jesus was saying was about first-century politics.” It became harder for him to view the Bible as a “hermeneutically sealed box,” as he had been taught. He started to doubt the inerrancy of the Scriptures, which made him doubt the faith that had sustained him; he was leading a church, but he wasn’t even sure he was still a Christian. He was exhausted, and, one Sunday, after the nine o’clock service, he hid in a storage closet, dreaming about running away so that he wouldn’t have to preach at eleven. He says, “I remember having moments of, O.K., I’m only going to say things that I know are true. ‘It’s better to be generous than stingy’—O.K., I can do that.”
In many churches, Bell’s newfound skepticism wouldn’t have been at all out of place. In a sense, he had belatedly discovered liberal theology, which treats the Bible as a collection of divinely inspired—but human-authored—texts, subject to multiple interpretations. Fifty years ago, it seemed obvious to many theologians that the future of the faith belonged to skeptics and doubters. In 1963, an Anglican scholar named John A. T. Robinson published a best-selling book called “Honest to God,” in which he argued that crude claims of Biblical inerrancy had long ago been debunked:
In the last century, a painful but decisive step forward was taken in the recognition that the Bible does contain “myth,” and that this is an important form of religious truth. It was gradually acknowledged, by all except extreme fundamentalists, that the Genesis stories of the Creation and the Fall were representations of the deepest truths about man and the universe in the form of myth rather than history, and were none the less valid for that.
A number of theologians went even further, arguing that Christians should view not just the Fall but also the Resurrection as an allegory [(Jesus denied - res)]. In an age when religion seemed to be in decline, some were eager to provide a less religious version of Christianity. In retrospect, Robinson and his contemporaries were too quick to dismiss “extreme fundamentalists.”
The early part of the twentieth century saw a revival of grassroots Christianity. Some of these Christians embraced the term “fundamentalist,” as they inveighed against the dangers of modern culture. Others, who sought to engage with culture, called themselves evangelicals. This was a new movement, and its innovation was to realize that a stern doctrine could thrive in a casual, contemporary context. Nowadays, the “evangelical” label has been adopted by a loose alliance of Protestants, who share a faith that emphasizes both clarity and intimacy: a perfect Bible [(inerrant) - res] and a personal Jesus. Despite the recent downturn, this movement has been astonishingly successful. Thirty per cent of white Americans are evangelicals—more than all the mainline Protestant denominations combined.
Bell was born in 1970, and he grew up in the world that the evangelicals made. When he invited Jesus into his heart, as a ten-year-old, he was speaking the expressive language of evangelicalism, even though he didn’t know that this tradition had a name. His college, Wheaton, has long been one of the most influential evangelical institutions in the country, and his seminary, Fuller, was founded to provide an evangelical alternative to the élite mainline seminaries. Bell’s mentor, Dobson, was also a product of the evangelical movement: starting in the nineteen-seventies, he was one of Jerry Falwell’s closest associates, and a board member of the Moral Majority, Falwell’s political organization.
At Calvary, Bell says, he came to regard the word “evangelical” as a kind of secret handshake. When worshippers asked if the church was evangelical, he understood them to be asking, “Is it safe, good, and O.K.? Is it kosher?” By affirming his evangelical identity, he could put people at ease. At Mars Hill, he cultivated a careful ambiguity, allowing worshippers to think that he was however evangelical they wanted him to be. He wanted to make a wide range of worshippers feel comfortable—until, after his crisis, he decided that he didn’t.
Bell eventually strengthened his faith; he knew that the Bible was redemptive because he saw its message transforming the estranged couples and struggling addicts he counselled. But his crisis taught him to distrust anyone who claimed that Biblical interpretation was a simple matter of following rules. It also spurred him to consider the limits of evangelicalism, which makes room for all sorts of sincere expressions of faith but not, often, for sincere expressions of doubt. As the God in his sermons became more abstract, he retained the habit of preaching about the sacred importance of seemingly secular topics like generosity. Outside the church, he created a popular series of stylish and moody DVDs, called “Nooma,” after the Greek word pneuma, which means “breath,” or “spirit.” The videos were achingly sincere, with Bell tramping through washed-out forests and airports and alleys, gazing meaningfully into the camera; many of them look like rejected treatments for Coldplay videos. But they resonated among young believers, who were relieved to discover that Christian messages could be hopeful without always being cheerful.
Successful pastors often build empires, leveraging the power of their personal brands. A booming church might open satellite campuses, where worshippers can watch the weekly sermon on a big screen, beamed in from the mother church. But Bell rebuffed the supporters who urged him to open a Christian school, or a Christian resort, or a Christian humanitarian network. Instead, he set about reinventing his church. Originally, Mars Hill had been led by an all-male team, just like Calvary. (In I Timothy 2:12, Paul says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.”) In 2003, Bell came to believe that excluding women from leadership didn’t fit with the Bible’s inclusive message. (In Galatians 3:28, Paul says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”) At a series of rancorous meetings, Bell faced opposition from so-called complementarians, who believe that men and women have distinct roles in the church, and in society. They felt that Bell had already made up his mind, and they were right; in the aftermath, attendance decreased by about two thousand. In 2006, Bell preached a series of sermons titled “The New Exodus,” which was dedicated to the proposition that churches are called to fight poverty, oppression, and environmental degradation. Some heard Bell’s message as an announcement of political liberalism, and attendance dropped by another thousand.
In some ways, Bell was relieved to no longer be running a ten-thousand-person church—in fact, he didn’t much care for running any kind of church. Officially, anyway, he was merely the teaching pastor; the church was run by its board of elders and its executive director. In 2008, he reduced his sermon load to twenty per year, and in 2010 the church hired Shane Hipps, a young pastor with a style reminiscent of Bell’s, to handle the rest. By 2011, when Bell published “Love Wins,” he was as much a touring speaker as a pastor, and he should have been used to controversy. Unlike many provocateurs, though, he doesn’t seem to like thinking of himself as a polarizing person. In writing “Love Wins,” he was dreaming of a world without Hell, but he was also dreaming of a world without arguments—as if the right book, written the right way, would persuade Christians to stop firing Bible verses at each other and start working to build Heaven on earth. But the evangelical tradition was already engaged in a strenuous and long-running argument with other branches of the church. And, without quite meaning to, Bell found himself arguing, too.
All Christians believe that Jesus will come again, to judge the living and the dead. But they disagree about the nature of this judgment. There is plenty in the Bible to suggest that Hell is big and cruel—a place of eternal conscious torment, sparing fewer souls than it claims. In Matthew 18, Jesus tells his disciples, “If your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.” (The word translated as “hell” is gehenna, which refers to the Valley of Hinnom, a fiery garbage dump outside Jerusalem ...

[(unfortunately this is an urban myth - there never was a dump outside of Jerusalem in the first century, only later after Jesus' time. Historically, it was an idolatrous high place called Topheth, a notorious place of death and idolatry, fire and judgment, and a place of child sacrifice in its earlier Canaanite days. Thus it is a divine metaphor for divine judgment. For further discussions on Hell please refer to the sidebar under the same name, as well as other topics such as that of Universalism. - res)].)

... But few of these Bible verses, read closely, seem definitive; visions and allegories outnumber rules and regulations. And, in the early years of Christianity, some scholars suggested other interpretations. Clement of Alexandria, a second-century theologian, regarded posthumous salvation as a logical possibility: “God being good, and the Lord powerful, they save with a righteousness and equality which extend to all that turn to Him, whether here or elsewhere.” This is a solid verdict, except for its ethereal final word, “elsewhere,” which suggests more possibilities for salvation, in the afterlife. Clement’s most famous student, Origen, imagined life and the afterlife as a divine refinery, in which souls undergo progressive purification until they are fit for reconciliation with God.
As the church matured, these speculations were pushed to the margins; Hell became a permanent feature of Christian eschatology, although its depiction was never standardized. Dante’s striated inferno reflected the Catholic taxonomy of sin: his Hell was a divine penitentiary, where souls suffered in proportion to the evil they had done. (Hoarders and squanderers pummel one another in the fourth circle; in the populous eighth circle, hucksters and swindlers occupy ten separate trenches.) Hieronymus Bosch painted Hell as a riot of mutations—a sick parody of the natural order. The doctrine of Calvinism, by contrast, emphasized the inherently sinful nature of humanity. Calvinist Hell wasn’t weird; it was the status quo. In 1741, Jonathan Edwards nearly caused a riot in a small Connecticut church by delivering a sermon called “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which depicted Hell as the only fitting punishment for the crime of being born:
The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider . . . looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the Fire; he is of purer Eyes than to bear to have you in his Sight; you are ten thousand Times more abominable in his Eyes than the most hateful venomous Serpent is in ours.
The most striking feature of Edwards’s sermon is its lack of proportion: the petty offenses of a short life, on one side, and the endless horror of Hell, on the other. Hell was a vivid symbol of an awesome, unreasonable God, which is precisely why many nineteenth-century pastors, in search of a more lucid doctrine, began to deëmphasize it. Some, like the abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher [a relative of mine - res)], embraced the “social gospel,” urging Christians to worry, instead, about eradicating the various hells on earth. For others, the move away from preaching Hell was more a matter of emphasis. Dwight Moody, perhaps the most successful evangelist of the nineteenth century, talked constantly of Heaven, which for him was the primary afterlife. The alternative was real, but secondary: an unheavenly place—a non-place, even—defined mainly by what it wasn’t. “In that lost world, you won’t hear that beautiful hymn, ‘Jesus of Nazareth Passeth By,’ ” Moody said. “He will have passed by. There will be no Jesus passing that way.”
A consensus seemed to be emerging: even if Christian leaders disagreed on the fine points of eschatology, they agreed that God didn’t actively torture unrepentant sinners, spiderlike, forever. In 1962, John Hick, a liberal theologian, called the doctrine of eternal torment “an idea which most contemporary theologians treat as a matter of merely historical interest.” One alternative was annihilationism [(see also here - res)], which held that lost souls would merely cease to exist. Another, more radical alternative was universalism [(Rob Bell is not; he is simply guilty of being obtusely ambiguous to the irritation of Evangelicals - res)], which held that all lost souls would eventually be found. (In one universalist interpretation, the famous lake of fire, in Revelation, exists not to torment the unsaved but to purify them.) Many churches came to embrace a more malleable doctrine, known as separationism, which cast Hell not as a punishment but as a voluntary form of loneliness—in the words of John Paul II, “the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy.”
And yet, despite the efforts of liberal theologians, old-fashioned Hell has been hard to eradicate. Surveys show that a majority of Americans still believe in Hell—though a bigger majority believe in Heaven. The Bible is full of severe-sounding judgments, impelled by a sense of urgency that is hard to explain if, in the end, there will be no lasting consequences. And so, while mainline churches adopted more abstract, allegorical doctrines, evangelical congregations held fast to the idea of eternal conscious torment. Piper, the theologian who bid Bell farewell on Twitter, speaks for many in the evangelical mainstream: “Hell is unspeakably real, conscious, horrible, and eternal.” Plenty of pastors have found, like Jonathan Edwards in Connecticut, that the doctrine of Hell doesn’t necessarily hamper recruitment efforts, despite the fears of liberals. From a certain perspective, the idea of a punitive Hell can seem oddly comforting—an affirmation that suffering is real, and that God is good enough to save you from it.
In 2005, in a book called “Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith,” Bell observed that “the life beyond this one is a continuation of the kinds of choices we make here and now.” And though “Love Wins” is bolder, it sits firmly within the mainstream of academic theology; it even arrived bearing an endorsement from Richard Mouw, the president of Fuller. Bell never denies the existence of Hell, and he never promises that all people will reach Heaven. But he points out that the references to Hell in the New Testament are infrequent, inconsistent, and often ambiguous; it’s never quite clear who’s going, or for how long, or what happens there. The Greek word aiónios, for example, is often translated as “eternal,” as when Jesus warns of “eternal fire,” even though a more literal translation would be “age-long.” [(not necessarily true, see McKnights comments under his "Love Wins" reviews - res)] There are, Bell allows, verses about judgment, banishment, and doom, but there are even more about restoration and renewal, and on one page he lists ten of his favorites. Often, he presents his insights as verse, which makes sense, because he specializes in invocation, not contention:
No more anger,
no more punishment,
or refining -
at some point
and reconciling
and return.
Bell’s abiding hope is that everyone will be united with God, fulfilling Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 2: “Every knee should bow . . . and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” The ellipsis is Bell’s, and it is strategic: the missing words are “in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” A reader looking for Hell might reasonably find it there, in the phrase “under the earth”—a translation of the Greek word katachthonios, which occurs nowhere else in the Bible. Bell’s book is full of carefully chosen and sometimes carefully truncated quotations. At one point, he quotes a letter in which Martin Luther, the father of Protestant Christianity, considers the idea that God might offer salvation to dead people who failed to choose it while they were alive: “Who would doubt God’s ability to do that?” But Bell doesn’t mention Luther’s deflating answer to his own question: “No one, however, can prove that He does do this.”
Bell knows that he is often accused of selective quotation, and, while he denies misleading his readers, he doesn’t deny leading them. “ ‘You’re just picking the verses you like’? I think everybody is,” he says. The Bible is full of contradictions, and there is no way to resolve them without considering the broader context. (Jesus in John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.” Jesus in Matthew 10:34: “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”) In Bell’s view, the so-called literalists are no less selective in their interpretations than he is, and a good deal less honest about their own biases. If “Love Wins” leads some readers to conclude, in exasperation, that nobody really knows what will happen in the afterlife, Bell would probably consider that a victory.
Bell’s most persuasive critics have defended the necessity of Hell by using the language of freedom. The grant of free will [(again, please refer to the sidebar under Sovereignty and Free Will - res)] means that human beings must have real choices, including the choice to refuse salvation forever, not just for a few years or decades or centuries. Bell concedes this possibility, although he’s not sure that any human could refuse God forever. Timothy Keller, a New York pastor, argues that a loving God also needs the capacity for wrath: “God must, and does, actively judge and reject those who have rejected him.” This judgment is God’s way of taking human agency seriously: to sweep everyone, eventually, into Heaven would mean ignoring the foolish choices of the unrepentant. As Luther observed, there’s no reason that God can’t extend grace and mercy into the afterlife—but there’s also no clear evidence, in the Bible, that this is the case. Earlier this year, at a Christian men’s retreat in Washington, Keller accused Bell of “backing away” from the Bible, in the hope of making its message more palatable.
Bell is not wrong, though, to perceive a tension built into the evangelical view of God as both an intimate companion and a wrathful judge. “Love Wins” is an elaboration of a basic tenet of the church: the certainty, which Bell has felt since boyhood, that God really is good, in a way we can recognize. In one sense, Bell followed the logic of evangelicalism to its conclusion: forced to choose between his personal Jesus and his perfect Bible, he chose Jesus, and set out to reëxamine the story he thought he knew. It is dangerous to be guided solely by your moral intuition, but surely it’s no less dangerous to ignore it. And even Keller concedes that the evangelical idea of Hell is unsatisfyingly incomplete. In his view, some questions about the afterlife will have to wait until we get there. At the retreat, Keller said, “When we find out what the answer is—about how God could be merciful and just, and still have it set up that way—we won’t have anything bad to say about it. We’ll be completely satisfied.” This is a wise and gentle demurral, but it’s also a profoundly unsettling view of God, who will seem “merciful and just” once we’re dead—but not, apparently, until then.
With the success of “Love Wins,” Bell emerged as a kind of celebrity pastor. He made the cover of Time, and his book tour was a cross between a travelling revival and a debate society. He spoke in bookstores and at colleges, and he submitted to an unusually thorough and erudite interrogation, on MSNBC, by the journalist Martin Bashir—who, as it turned out, attends Keller’s church. In West Michigan, though, the book put pressure on the people around Bell, who found themselves having to defend statements they might never have heard, let alone approved. Congregants reported that friends and family members were asking why they were allowing themselves to be led by a false teacher. Church leaders printed up a sheet of talking points to help staff members deflect the charge that Bell was a universalist, because many Christians consider universalism heretical:
“Love Wins” does not promote universalism as it is commonly understood (all will be saved, regardless of their faith), so we ask that you would please avoid using that term. It’s a loaded word and may only serve to confuse and detract from the heart of the book. - Mars Hill
Kristen Bell was moved by the support of the Mars Hill congregation, but she also found it exhausting to hear the latest stories about former members criticizing her husband; some weeks, she just stayed home. “There was a cost,” she says. “And part of the cost was, we couldn’t keep doing what we were doing at Mars Hill.” Attendance dropped by another thousand, reducing the congregation to about thirty-five hundred. Then, just as the controversy was subsiding, and the church was stabilizing, Bell announced that he, too, would be leaving. Although he had grown to love West Michigan—he and Kristen were bringing up three children there—he had decided that he couldn’t stay.
Mars Hill announced the news in an e-mail to members and in a statement on its Web site, which crashed beneath the deluge of visitors. During Bell’s Sunday sermon that week, he talked about his departure. In a quavering voice, he said, “A new vision, a new venture, and a new calling have been birthed in my bones.” And although he declined to add details—“It’s better to wait,” he said—he revealed that he was moving to California, and he said that he would deliver his final Mars Hill sermon in December.
A few days later, a report from Deadline Hollywood, an entertainment news site, filled in some of the blanks: Bell was working with Carlton Cuse, a television producer whose credits include “Lost.” Bell had met him at a Time dinner celebrating influential people, and, according to the site, ABC had already bought the rights to a new show from them, “a drama project with spiritual overtones.” What began as an idle conversation, about a mainstream TV show that was both faith-oriented and hip, had evolved into a finished script called “Stronger,” about a music teacher who is also a spiritual mentor.
A week before Christmas, Bell arrived at Mars Hill to preach his final sermon. Because he vividly remembers the early days, he still sometimes talks about Mars Hill as a gritty, scrappy place: a church with no sign, no steeple, no cross, and hardly any decoration. This is all true, but Mars Hill is also a comfortable, well-run facility, with plenty of parking and age-specific child care. It was just after eight o’clock on a seasonably cold morning, and worshippers were trickling in and stamping the snow off their boots. Buffet tables in the hallways offered bagels and fair-trade coffee, and each one had a “joy box,” where worshippers could deposit whatever sum they deemed appropriate. In the main sanctuary, which was once a jewelry-and-electronics emporium called Witmark, an Irish indie-rock band was onstage, playing songs of devotion.
Not long after nine, Bell walked through the crowd and up onto the stage, where he was met with a standing ovation. “Dear Mars Hill,” he began, and then he read an eleven-page letter of farewell. He talked about “the mystery at the heart of creation,” and told the worshippers, “You were once an idea—this church, this place, this community, was once simply a hunch, a dream, a vision.” When he was preaching at Calvary, Bell used to emphasize the importance of being born again in Christ; church members would often ask one another about the day they surrendered. But Bell has come to think of rebirth as an open-ended process. “I feel like I’m just getting started,” he said, and he sounded a little bit as if he had been born again, again.
Bell says he is certain that Mars Hill will thrive without him, and perhaps it will. The current president of the council of elders is Betsy DeVos, a prominent Michigander. (Her husband, Dick, was the 2006 Republican gubernatorial candidate.) DeVos says, “We knew it was only a matter of time before Rob would be compelled to use his gifts in other ways.” Earlier this year, after a period of indecision the church announced that it had found a replacement: Kent Dobson, a broad-minded pastor who also happens to be the son of Bell’s mentor, Ed [(and a sometimes preacher at Mars over the years when needed; along with Mars original worship leader in the early days. - res)].
Bell speaks fondly of Mars Hill, but he has also developed a certain skepticism about the idea of a church as a big, sustainable institution. “A conservative Bible megachurch, if it’s really true to the Jesus that’s in its Bible, it has the seeds of its own destruction within itself,” he says. “If it really is serving everybody, it ends up subverting its own thing.” A truly Christian church, in his view, should be an experiment, wary of firm doctrines and predictable sermons. But a healthy megachurch needs structure and consistency; it needs to keep lots of people happy at once. And so, beyond a certain point, it must be cautious—a very un-Biblical commandment. For ; he asked his congregants to think of themselves as a community of “disciples of Jesus” insteaa time, Bell sought to solve this problem by dechurchifying his church [(a "gathering" - res)]. And although he eventually reconciled himself to the term “church,” he insists that churches can, and should, foster spiritual exploration. He says, “How do we make space, when we gather, for people to have experiences with that thing that can’t be named?”
Bell often talks about the current moment as a “historic” opportunity for the creation of a new kind of church, one geared toward young people who aren’t inspired by the old evangelicalism. Nowadays, he often describes “Love Wins” as a strategic project, designed to make Christianity more inviting to people who might reject it out of repugnance for the doctrine of Hell. When Bell talks this way, he can sound an awful lot like the theological liberals of the twentieth century: scholarly reformers, idealistic but slightly smug, who were shown up by the preachers they derided as “extreme fundamentalists.” Given the recent history of mainline Protestants, it’s unclear that a more liberal theology would be healthy for the evangelical movement. Many of the most vibrant churches in America today are Pentecostal or charismatic; they emphasize ecstatic, sensual experiences like speaking in tongues and faith healing. Throughout American history, the most successful church movements have been not the ones that kept up with contemporary culture but the ones that were confident enough to tug hard against it.
From a certain evangelical perspective, Bell’s life can look like a cautionary tale: his desire to question the doctrine of Hell led to his departure from the church he built. And maybe, like many other theological liberals in recent decades, he will drift out of the Christian church altogether and become merely one more mildly spiritual Californian, content to find moments of grace and joy in his everyday life; certainly, that’s what many of his detractors expect. But it’s also possible that his new life will end up strengthening many of his old convictions. Before, he was a dissenter in evangelical West Michigan. Now he is a lifelong believer in secular Southern California. And, in that world, his faith may seem more distinctive—and more important—than his doubts.
It turned out that Bell was wise not to tell the congregation too much about his plans in California. Great is the mystery of the television industry, and in the months after Bell arrived in California he and Cuse tried, and failed, to get approval to shoot a pilot for “Stronger.” In the meantime, they worked on a plan for a different project: a faith-inflected talk show, starring Bell. (Bell and Cuse organized a few tapings in Los Angeles, and are putting together a reel to show network executives.) Bell’s family settled in Orange County, near the ocean, and he worked on a new book. He went surfing nearly every day, and took to wearing non-black clothes. Soon, he looked so much happier and healthier that one old friend asked if he had got a hair transplant.
After a few months, though, Bell started to think that he might be ready to be a pastor again, if only for a few days. He announced to his e-mail list that he was organizing a retreat in Laguna Beach, and he accepted the first fifty people who responded. The schedule they received told them to expect two twelve-hour sessions, “with just the right breaks for food and surfing.”
The group convened in a small motel conference room, with windows that opened onto the Pacific Ocean. More than half the attendees were pastors; for them this was a professional-development conference. And although they were excited to spend two days with Bell, not all of them were excited to tell people where they were. One young pastor, from a small church in the Pacific Northwest, said he didn’t want to be dragged into a “Love Wins” controversy. “I wanted to take a picture, put it on Facebook, but then I thought, Nah,” he said, sighing. “It’s just too much negative energy.”
Bell spent much of the morning sharing his current enthusiasms, which range from Martin Buber to Coldplay, and explicating some Bible verses he had been thinking about. He lingered over Matthew 13:13 (“This is why I speak to them in parables: ‘Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand’ ”), which he took to be a meta-sermon: a reminder to preachers that they can’t control how their words are heard, or aren’t. That afternoon, he led an intensive discussion of Spiral Dynamics, an ostensibly secular theory of human development, which he has recently been studying. (It holds that all people progress through stages of increasingly sophisticated consciousness; Bell believes that people at different stages might need different kinds of churches.) Bell surprised the group by bringing in Cuse, who talked about his effort to inject “spirituality” into “Lost.” Cuse calls himself a questioning Catholic, a believer in search of a doctrine. Bell is comfortable with this kind of amorphous faith; it strikes him as more authentic than some other forms of Christianity. At one point, a man got up and identified himself as an atheist who had come to doubt atheism itself. Bell gave him a tentative spiritual diagnosis, and no prescription at all. “Something within you has a longing,” he said. “You have a bucket—I call that the God bucket. And I wouldn’t go much further than that.”
By the second day, Bell’s fifty disciples were starting to seem more like a group of old friends, enjoying a long-awaited reunion. Over lunch, Bell organized a surfing expedition: there were rented wetsuits and boards, and just about everyone got a chance to ride one of the mild Laguna Beach waves to shore. Bell’s twelve-year-old son, Preston, arrived, on a skateboard. After the Bells moved to California, Preston joined a youth group at a small evangelical church, and he had asked his parents earlier that day if he could address the conference. In the meeting room, he spoke about his faith, and someone asked if he had any advice for parents who wanted their children to know Jesus. “Don’t force it, because it’ll happen,” he said. “God’s going to be real, sooner or later.”
Preston’s testimony changed the tone of the gathering: it was as if everyone had been reminded what was at stake. Afterward, the group went to a restaurant next door for a goodbye dinner, and one of the attendees paid everybody’s check. When people wandered back into the meeting room for the final gathering, they found Bell sitting beside a small table, with a big glass of red wine and half a loaf of bread. “I’d like to serve you each Communion,” he said, and he talked about how every blessing requires a blesser. “Christ’s body is broken and his blood is poured out—there isn’t any other way for it to work.”
One by one, members of the group made their way to Bell. He held each person’s left shoulder with his right hand, made eye contact, and said, “The body of Christ, broken for you.” A piece of bread. “The blood of Christ, shed for you.” A sip of wine.
The communicants returned to their seats, grasping the people they passed; if you listened closely, you could hear sniffling. When it was done, Bell took Communion, too, and he was preparing to send people back to their motel rooms when a man raised his hand. He said, “Rob, I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but can we just take a moment to pray for you?”
Five months after leaving Mars Hill, in a motel by the ocean, Bell had created a temporary, miniature version of the thing he had just left behind: a church. “It is the most frustrating institution in the world,” he said the next day. “And yet, when it’s firing on all cylinders, there’s absolutely nothing like it.”
Photo Illustration: AJ Frackattack, Portrait by Michael Schmelling, Stained Glass by Bridgeman/Getty.


Giving Up Guns for Lent

Giving Up Guns for Lent
Obviously, Jesus didn’t own a gun, never said anything directly about firearms. He couldn’t have. Of course, that won’t solve the debates now roiling this nation about violence and the people and tools that perpetuate it. Nonetheless, the fact that Jesus has nothing to say about guns has not stopped a number of pundits from extrapolating Jesus’ ethics on gun violence. In recent days, some Christians have tried to construct a case that Jesus himself would support self-defense in the form of individually-owned firearms. Others vehemently disagree. Agreement is as hard to find among Christians as it is among the nation more broadly.
What would Jesus have to say to us today about a culture we all admit is far too saturated with violence and death? How would he guide us in light of recent tragedies like Newtown and Aurora?
Mother of Sandy Hook Victim Noah Pozner Targets Gun Violence
While events like these rightly elevate our sense that something must be done, it is the truly ordinary nature of our culture’s violence that ought to convince us to lay aside politics for the sake of our neighbors. Unfortunately, our political divisions foreclose most opportunities to have a reasonable conversation about such hot-button issues, even among people of common faith. But here’s one potential route for reflection.
What if we all gave up guns for Lent?
This last week, Christians around the world gathered to mark the beginning of Lent, the 40 days leading to Easter and the celebration of Jesus’ victory over the death. The first step on this annual pilgrimage is Ash Wednesday, when believers receive a tangible reminder of our mortality. With crosses of ash on our foreheads, we remind ourselves and the rest of the world that our bodies are frail, too easily broken, even as we look forward to God’s final victory over death.
As we begin this season of Lent, Luke 4:1-13 narrates Jesus facing a triad of famous temptations. In the passage, Jesus is impelled by the Holy Spirit to wander in the wilderness, the place of Israel’s ancient sojourn and also a place of great danger. For forty days, Jesus fasts, depriving his body of sustenance, giving up something vital and necessary. When he is at his weakest, the devil approaches.
First, the devil invites Jesus to turn stones into bread, to concoct sustenance in the midst of a barren desert. Jesus is certainly capable of such deeds. In fact, later in the narrative, Jesus will feed not himself but a crowd of 5,000 (see Luke 9:12-17). Jesus responds that we do not live by bread alone. That is, in all times and in all places, we rely on God and God alone for our sustenance. Jesus’ call is to feed others, not himself.
Second, the devil evokes a panoramic display of all the kingdoms of the world, telling Jesus that their power is in the devil’s hands. If Jesus will only worship him, the devil will hand their power over to Jesus. Luke seems to believe the devil here; the devil indeed has the power of the world’s kingdoms in his hands.
When Luke looks at his world, he sees a massive empire capable of massive warfare and oppression with the devil at its reigns. But this empire will not fall by the exertion of military might but the path of service and sacrifice Jesus embraces. Jesus responds to this great temptation finally to free Israel from the bonds of Roman oppression by noting that we ought only to serve God. That is, in all times and in all places, only God is worthy of our worship. Jesus’ call is to exercise power through weakness.
Lastly, the devil leads Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, inviting Jesus to cast himself down in a deadly fall. After all, the devil reasons, God won’t let you die, right? Ironically, of course, we know the end of the story. Jesus would later return to this city and die a martyr’s death; he would suffer the cruelty of an unjust execution. But not now. Do not tempt God, Jesus believes. That is, in all times and in all places, God’s timetable is not ours. Jesus’ call is to be faithful to the path God has laid out, even and especially because that path is littered with dangers and threats.
This powerful story is an ideal starting point for a season of Lent, following the tragedy of Newtown and the subsequent political debate our grief has inspired. Lenten practices call for us to give up something we think precious, vital, important. In the case of Jesus, he fasts from food for forty days and then turns away from the temptation to feed himself, to liberate his people from the clutches of Roman oppression, to prove to the devil that he is indeed God’s servant.
But why? Why give up something we hold precious and necessary? Precisely because in letting go what we think is indispensable, we might discover its contingency. We might discover that we have been holding on tightly to shadows of fear and anxiety, not the sure anchors of hope and faith.
What if we all as a Lenten act of devotion gave up guns and the violence they engender? What if firearms were locked away? What if violent images were replaced with visions of peace? What if the guns of war stopped their incessant racket?
But what if this also meant that the police would be unarmed, that personal retaliation was not an option, that the armies of the world would lay down their weapons, that we had to rely on God and God alone for our safety?
What if this also meant that drones would no longer patrol the skies over Afghanistan? That violence could no longer be the stuff of our entertainment and delight?
Perhaps then we’d remember that safety is a value among many others competing for our commitments. Perhaps we’d remember that violence is sometimes unavoidable but never holy. Perhaps we’d remember that death ought never be a source of joy, only a spring of lament. Perhaps we’d remember that the world is a beautiful but dangerous place and that the protection of those we love and the most vulnerable among us is a high calling, a calling that comes with an equally high cost.
When I suggest giving up guns for Lent, I’m not interested in policy or legislation so much as how we posture ourselves toward a world full of death, violence, and pain. We ought not cling to guns as a sure deposit of safety. But neither should any of us imagine that policies and laws by themselves can alleviate the forces of evil that drive us toward the edge of death and despair.
A fast from guns might bring some of the clarity we need. Christians should--if we take our faith seriously--talk about such contentious issues in a graceful and substantive way. Christians should--if we take our faith seriously--argue on the basis of our most deeply held values and not via imitation of our preferred partisans. And perhaps a fast from guns and the violence that surrounds them would lead us to a place of wisdom, compassion, graceful listening, and even peace.
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Turn away from evil and do good;
seek peace and pursue it.
Ps 34.14

A Gospel of Peace and Solidarity. Of Activism and Nonviolence.

What Do These Activists All Have In Common?
Rene Girard, Rob Bell, James Wellman, & James Alison?

Today I would like to create a brief, imperfect, sketch of several men and their movements which may be reflective of our postmodern times. Ahead of this let me express my apologies for the length of this post. One that might require a revisit or two in order to read through its entirety. However, postmodernism has brought to contemporary Christianity disturbing questions about our moral acts and actions, sociological ideas, and civic involvements. And to this have come many respondents - like the ones we'll review today. Who wish to reform humanity's global societies towards the more proper behaviors of tolerance and respect, mutual affection and listening, corporate solidarity and good will. Wishing to instill a climate of generalized human improvement across all the lines and divisions that would separate ourselves from each other.

A laudable task, I would submit, to each man and their method using Scripture to advance and support a variety of ideas towards their several themes and particulars. As each man or woman shares with us his/her vision of God amongst a humanity that is careless with its self, its resources, its peoples, and cultures. Now whether each separate vision is true or not, I'll let you the reader determine. But for myself, its a bit like describing the elephant in the room by a group of blind men. Each seeing some aspect of God, Jesus, or the Bible, describing what is important to their arena of interests and abilities. And like the Apostle Paul, I would say, "So be it. Let each man follow Christ as their hearts tell them so. They are our brothers in the Gospel of Jesus." (1 Cor. 1.12; 3.4)

So then, who are these figureheads, and what generally do they teach? Let's look at each one while asking the question, "Just what would each idea have to offer Emergent Christianity?" Or, asked another way, "In what way would each idea tell us how the Christian faith might become interlocked within the scope of human solidarity. And how by this activity would it undo the cruel institutionalizations of humanity's hatreds, wars, and intolerances?"

Rene Girard

Wikipedia Bio - René Girard (born December 25, 1923) is a French historian, literary critic, and philosopher of social science. His work belongs to the tradition of anthropological philosophy. He is the author of nearly thirty books (see below), in which he developed the ideas of:

  1. mimetic desire: all of our desires are borrowed from other people;
  2. mimetic rivalry: all conflict originates in mimetic desire;
  3. the scapegoat mechanism is the origin of sacrifice and the foundation of human culture, and religion was necessary in human evolution to control the violence that can come from mimetic rivalry;
  4. the Bible reveals the three previous ideas and denounces the scapegoat mechanism.
René Girard's writings cover many areas. Although the reception of his work is different in each of these areas, there is a growing body of secondary literature that uses his hypotheses and ideas in the areas of literary criticism, critical theory, anthropology, theology, psychology, mythology, sociology, economics, cultural studies, and philosophy

Publications - Here is a list from Amazon with several of his books below:

And a website link - Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary: Understanding the Bible Anew Through the Mimetic Theory of René Girard.


Rene's integrates his mimetic theory with his theory of divine scapegoating in his book, I See Satan Fall Like Lightening. Here he tells of the cyclical histories found in human history of diverting troubling ideas and messy societal turmoil by electing a person, or an idea, as the common cause that when put away will end the division occurring in a society, culture, or ethos. Examples abound, from Jesus, to Joan of Arc, to the American war in Iraq, to even end-of-the-world scenarios, what Rene would call types of "apocalyptic enders." So that, with the advent of personal, or societal, disruptions must come the sacrifice of an idea, an institution, a person, country, a social order, or an ethos, in order to sustain that society's previous identity of itself.

Another example of Rene's mimetic principal can be found in the idea of Christians making a religion out of their faith, and in the unconscious act of doing this, have created the ancillary affects of secular modernity sustained within society today. Paradoxically, when Christians have taken the words of Jesus and followed through on biblical principals they believed were true, these acts have resulted in secularizing the bible to one's needs and  wants (indicative, I think of our old man, or sin nature, that lives on underneath the renewing image of Christ regardless of our supposedly righteous acts when undertaken in our own prideful power or religious zeal):

In René Girard and Secular Modernity: Christ, Culture, and Crisis, Scott Cowdell provides the first systematic interpretation of René Girard’s controversial approach to secular modernity. Cowdell identifies the scope, development, and implications of Girard’s thought, the centrality of Christ in Girard's thinking, and, in particular, Girard's distinctive take on the uniqueness and finality of Christ in terms of his impact on Western culture. In Girard’s singular vision, according to Cowdell, secular modernity has emerged thanks to the Bible’s exposure of the cathartic violence that is at the root of religious prohibitions, myths, and rituals. In the literature, the psychology, and most recently the military history of modernity, Girard discerns a consistent slide into an apocalypse that challenges modern ideas of romanticism, individualism, and progressivism.

In the first three chapters, Cowdell examines the three elements of Girard’s basic intellectual vision (mimesis, sacrifice, biblical hermeneutics) and brings this vision to a constructive interpretation of “secularization” and “modernity,” as these terms are understood in the broadest sense today. Chapter 4 focuses on modern institutions, chiefly the nation state and the market, that function to restrain the outbreak of violence. And finally, Cowdell discusses the apocalyptic dimension of Girard's theory in relation to modern warfare and terrorism. Here, Cowdell engages with the most recent writings of Girard (particularly his Battling to the End) and applies them to further conversations in cultural theology, political science, and philosophy. Cowdell takes up and extends Girard’s own warning concerning an alternative to a future apocalypse: “What sort of conversion must humans undergo, before it is too late?”

"Scott Cowdell's book is the first comprehensive study of modernity and secularity in René Girard's thought. Cowdell brings Girard's theory into a fruitful dialogue with leading approaches on secularization like those of Max Weber, Hans Blumenberg, Peter Berger, or Charles Taylor. Scholars and students of theology, philosophy, and sociology will benefit from this wide-ranging overview of the relationship between religion, modernity, and secularization." —Wolfgang Palaver, Institute of Systematic Theology, University of Innsbruck

Rob Bell

Besides being my former pastor at Mars Hill, Rob is a novel thinker who is passionate about his Christian faith when liberated from religious stereotypes and focused solely upon Jesus' message and mission. As we have followed along here before with many posts and commentaries (sic, Relevancy22's sidebars, Love Wins, Rob Bell), let me quote from several outside sources of Rob's passion and vision:


"Rob’s newest book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, tells how God is described today striking many as mean, primitive, backward, illogical, tribal, and at odds with the frontiers of science. At the same time, many intuitively feel a sense of reverence and awe in the world. Can we find a new way to talk about God?

"Pastor and New York Times bestselling author Rob Bell does here for God what he did for heaven and hell in Love Wins: he shows how traditional ideas have grown stale and dysfunctional and reveals a new path for how to return vitality and vibrancy to how we understand God. Bell reveals how we got stuck, why culture resists certain ways of talking about God, and how we can reconnect with the God who is with us, for us, and ahead of us, pulling us forward into a better future—and ready to help us live life to the fullest." - Amazon Review


"Rob Bell, Subversive? Celebrity? Radical? Heretic? Holy Man? Making the cover of Time Magazine, star of the influential Nooma series, game-changer in the church, and budding TV entrepreneur, Rob Bell has caused the entire evangelical world to wrestle with the scope of salvation with one daring question: who gets to be saved?

"For religious progressives, Rob Bell offers a passionate faith, a prophetic challenge, a biblical acuity, and a generous vision of who God is in the world. For conservatives, Bell’s the voice that young Christians are looking for—a person who takes science seriously, speaks at cutting edge of popular culture, and argues God is bigger than our language for him.

"The Christian message needs a new interpreter: one particular enough to embody the tradition but broad enough to evoke thought and feeling from a range of people, including evangelicals, religious progressives, and those disenchanted with churched religion—the spiritual but not religious, who find themselves compelled by Bell’s charisma and artistic creations." - James Wellman, Rob Bell and a New American Christianity

James Wellman

From his blogsite we discover that James Wellman is "an Associate Professor and Chair of the Comparative Religion Program in the Jackson School of International Studies. Teaching at the University of Washington since 2002, his areas of expertise are in American religious culture, history and politics.

"Wellman’s most recent book, Rob Bell and a New American Christianity (Abingdon Press, 2012), explores one of the most well-known and controversial evangelical ministers in America. Bell, up until 2011, led a 10,000-member megachurch, and is now pursuing TV opportunities in Hollywood. Bell’s artistry as a preacher, his fearlessness in pursuing various forms of media, makes him an ideal person to examine the future horizon of American Christianity.

"As Wellman wrote: "In this way, Bell is a postmodern evangelist--a slam poet, a Billy Graham type, who beguiles with words, images, and ideas about a beautiful Jesus, whose stories transfix and transduce words into flesh, making incarnation the arbiter of all value."

"Wellman’s other publications include an award-winning book, The Gold Coast Church and the Ghetto: Christ and Culture in Mainline Protestantism (Illinois, 1999); two edited volumes: The Power of Religious Publics: Staking Claims in American Society, with Bill Swatos (Praegers, 1999), and Belief and Bloodshed: Religion and Violence Across Time and Tradition (Rowman and Littlefield, 2007). His 2008 monograph, Evangelical vs. Liberal: The Clash of Christian Cultures in the Pacific Northwest (Oxford University Press), received Honorable Mention for the 2009 Distinguished Book Award by the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

"Wellman has recently completed editing a volume with Clark Lombardi, called Religion and Human Security: A Global Perspective (Oxford University Press, 2012). This volume examines case studies of the impact of religious groups on the human security of diverse global populations.

"His next book project, High on God: How the Megachurch Conquered America (Oxford University Press), is based on a national survey of twelve national megachurches, engaging quantitative and qualitative data from interviews with clergy and laypeople. The book explores the powerful affective forces within these congregations and is a fascinating portrait of the dominance of megachurches in American religious life.

"Wellman is a Presbyterian minister. He lives in the Seattle area with his partner, Annette Moser-Wellman, and their two daughters, Constance and Georgia, whom Jim calls his  bright and shining morning stars."


Sojourners is an activist group centered upon political pacifism and social causes for justice. In a book review on Rob Bell’s latest book (see below) Rene Girard's mimetic theories are tied in with Sojourner’s ideas of societal sacrifice, healing, and redemption. Their history is one of social struggle, ethnic diversity, international community, and call to renewal (as found in their website):

"Sojourners are Christians who follow Jesus, but who also sojourn with others in different faith traditions and all those who are on a spiritual journey. We are evangelicals, Catholics, Pentecostals and Protestants; progressives and conservatives; blacks, whites, Latinos, and Asians; women and men; young and old. We reach into traditional churches but also out to those who can't fit into them. Together we seek to discover the intersection of faith, politics, and culture. We invite you to join, to connect, and to act. Welcome to the community."

James Alison

A disciple of Rene Girard, British Theologian James Alison promotes the idea of forgiving one’s victim. Which is all-well-and-good but one which may reiterate a form of naturalistic theology authorizing man’s cultural lifestyles as the definitive hermeneutic for biblical exploration and derivation. As example, homosexuality is a natural instinct and is not a sin, which may, or may not be true, and one we've been exploring in our support for the rights of gender, and sexual preference and equality without actually addressing the question in the way that James Alison has been doing.

At which point you have to ask how this type of hermeneutic is different from William Webb's theistically-based Redemptive Movement Hermeneutic. Which is a biblical type of trajectory hermeneutic speaking to the moral progression found in Scripture unto this present day. Here, morals are viewed as a relative set of ethics that have been evolving through man's primitive histories. Where one set of morals is viewed in a certain way in the Old Testament until Jesus comes along and "uplifts" them towards another definition and meaning. And then the 21st century breaks out under postmodernity to challenge our contemporary structures of morals and ethos to reform yet again. Understandably, the problems this view presents are manifold.

However, Webb's definition, like Alison's, are asking some very hard questions about the moral sentiments and ethical practices of the Christian church as foundered outside of Scripture within its subjective network of religious folklores and traditional belief structures. Such that other Christians, organizations, and institutions, are saying perhaps we should re-hear Jesus on these matters. Asking questions of whether God condoned the very violence, injustices, and moral outrage we read of in the OT. Or whether we have somehow misunderstood that violence to actually be a mirror of that same violence found within our own wicked hearts?

But, then comes the question of why God would reveal Himself in this way? Or why He commanded Israel to commit violence against its neighbors? Or even why the holy men of Scripture wrote of God in this way? Is this God the same God of love, peace, mercy and forgiveness that Jesus tells us of? That Jesus demonstrates to us as God Incarnate amongst us? Who speaks a much different message to sinful humanity than He did in the OT when telling Noah of His plans to wipe out all of humanity in a massive flood? Where was God's mercy and forgiveness then? Are we to take these stories as literal evidences of God, or as comparative literature to polytheistic nations of Israel testimony of Yahweh? Which tells of a powerful God who spared Noah in a flood's devastation because he looked to God for his salvation and acted upon his faith? There are no simplistic explanations here when thinking through sovereignty and sin, free will and disbelief, purpose and meaning. Where people and religion are involved all is dark and murky.

So understandably, one can see the many interpretive problems we might have when relating the idea of divine revelation to that of static human reasoning. As such, Natural Theology is similarly based upon human reasoning and experience. But unlike biblical theology, natural theology is not based upon Scripture as revealed theology. Thus, natural theology must use human convention for its particulars and assertions, unlike Christian orthodoxy which states that God revealed Himself to His people in the Old Testament telling of His mind and heart, divine plans and purposes. Even as He did in the New Testament through the Apostles, and especially through His Son. Who is the second person of the Trinity, and very God Himself. And that this revelation gives to us the authority and assurance of a God unlike any we can imagine in our human souls. Which revelation and relationship and Spirit-imbued empowerment causes us to imagine, to collaborate, to envision, to reach out, in a thousand different ways and wonts searching for life's meaning and purpose, our responsibility in this life, for the human touch, hope, and peace, as centered in-and-around all things God and through His Son, Jesus.

Overall, it seems that Webb and Alison are asking the ultimate questions of the church. Just "what good is religion if it doesn't do much good?!" For them, Jesus, and the church's idea of God, must focus upon human morals and ethics if it is to have relevancy and meaning. That the faith of Jesus is a faith that not only changes people, but changes people's civic institutions towards the revolutionizing idea of doing good to one another. For the Naturalist it is enough that this effort is promoted and practiced. For the Christian, we see this effort as that and more. For God is our reality. And Jesus is the truer picture of the God of the OT. That our tasks are manifold spiritual, apocalyptic, societal, personal, regenerative, and redemptive. That in Jesus will come the Kingdom of God. And not by our own hands, but through our hands submitted to His Spirit of Love and Wisdom shall it be inaugurated. This would be the gospel of Jesus. One that resonates with the (spiritual) revisioning of the world for the solidarity of mankind in Christ Jesus our Savior and Lord.

Let Us Summarize

My reaction? Like Paul’s statements who once had said, “The one who is for Christ is our brother, not our enemy.” Whether it is Girard, Rob Bell, James Wellman, the Sojourners Community, or even James Alison, each are promoting Jesus in the light of their religious understanding of Scripture. An understanding that plays out differently to our temporal, moiling societies so locked into greed, pride, selfishness, and ambition.

Yes, I suppose we might debate their separate theologies, as being too earthy, too subjective, or too societally-oriented, and such like. But what is the point so long as Jesus is uplifted as the Life-and-Light of sinful mankind? And furthermore, the question of what good is religion if it doesn't inspire and transform our relationships with one another, is a significant one! This is a very legitimate question when reviewing the church's history of Muslim genocide in the Middle Ages; its cruel religious Inquisitions in Spain and Western Europe; its wars and lusts down through the secular Ages of the 19th-20th Century; its intolerance - if not outright advocacy of - slavery, domination, murder in witchhunts, extortions, bribes, power, pride and greed? Did Jesus envisage these as Christian acts (or as the gospel's acts) when saying "Love God and Love your neighbour?" No, I think not.

In fact, Jesus said that faith in Him, or the active practice of following His examples, will divide families and children from one another, even as they will divide churches and societies from one another. To expect political, economic, and sociological disruption while attempting to practice the arts of global healing, forgiveness, mercy, unity, and redemption. These are but some of the biblical themes one comes across when reading either the OT or the NT. Themes that divided Noah's heart. That disturbed David's sin. That caused Abraham to withhold his hand from sacrificing his son and to lay down his knife of disbelief before the God of love and reconciliation.

There is a solidarity that can be found in mankind. But its discovery will be from within the heart of the God whose image He has placed within us: a heart that seeks good. That practices love and thoughtfulness. That engenders peace and good will. That preaches a gospel of service and care to others. That epitomizes self-sacrifice and selflessness. A Christian theology that is amazingly convoluted, but one that makes me glad that I have taken the time to write down my observations of it, along with that of others different from mine own. Of what an Emerging Christianity could look like as it is pulled in a million different directions into nothingness by its many separate reformers and reformationsAn Emerging Christianity that continues to synthesize itself from the many disruptive, and caustic, movements pulling it apart towards fracturous results. One that is seeking to develop a central core of tenets that may lend the attitudes of Life-and-Light to its many separate causes and promotions of a contemporary Christianity growing within this present post-modern era of reflection and revisionism, post-structural deconstruction and reconstruction,  spiritual reformation and repentance. It is an emerging vision of inspiration to the power of the Spirit who can heal and bring peace.

These, then, are my thoughts and sentiments. What say you?

R.E. Slater
February 13, 2013

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

More about Sojourner's Political Activism for Justice and Peace

Rob Bell, via Rob Bell's Facebook page
Rob Bell on Facebook

A Sojouner's Book Review:
'Rob Bell and a New American Christianity'

by Adam Ericksen 01-25-2013 | 11:17am

"Can we watch a video with that guy who has the weird hair and the dark rimmed glasses?"
- a member of my youth group

"Love wins the in the sense that God’s will is the reconciliation of all things - 
the soul, the body, the earth, the cosmos, and everything in it."
- James Wellman, Rob Bell and a New American Christianity, 59 

American Christianity is experiencing a theological shift. Many have tried to explain it, sometimes making the shift far more confusing than it actually is. Fortunately, the shift can be explained quite simply, and while it may be new to American Christianity, it is actually very old. Indeed, it dates back 2,000 years. The shift boils down to the two theological axioms of the New Testament, both found in the letter 1 John:

“God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1:5)


“God is love” (4:8 and 16)

Those statements, while simple, are far from simplistic. John was bold in affirming these statements. He knew he had to give it to us straight – probably because he and the other disciples had a hard time understanding what Jesus meant in his teachings and parables. So, John cut to the chase and simply claimed that Jesus reveals, “God is love and God is light. There is absolutely no darkness within God.”

That’s the shift within American Christianity, and Rob Bell is leading the way. I highly recommend James Wellman’s book Rob Bell and a New American Christianity as a great resource for anyone wanting to understand Bell’s biography, his role in the shift, and the admiration along with the fierce criticism he engenders. Personally, I admire Bell. I find his books, videos, and sermons a source of inspiration, as do many others. His appeal transcends generational gaps. Members of my youth group frequently plead, “Can we watch a video with that guy who has the weird hair and the dark rimmed glasses?” Interestingly, their parents like Bell, too. A few years ago I showed Bell’s video Rhythm to some adults of my church. They were quickly engaged by Bell’s artistic style and message. His fundamental point in that video, and throughout his ministry, is to teach what God is like. Bell says in Rhythm:
Jesus is like God in his generosity and compassion. That’s what God is like. In his telling of the truth, that’s what God is like. In his love and forgiveness and sacrifice … that’s what God is like. That’s who God is.
Of course, there are theological consequences in these claims. What does it mean to say that God is love? That God is generous and compassionate? That God is forgiving and sacrificial? Ultimately, what does it mean to say that God is light and in God there is no darkness at all? First, it means that God’s love is nonviolent. This changes our understanding of many Christian doctrines, including the all-important doctrine of atonement. Many believe that doctrine insists that God is holy and that sin offends the all-holy God. God’s wrath must be taken out on someone pure and innocent, and so Jesus saves us from God by sacrificing himself to God’s wrath. One of the problems with that theory of atonement is that it places darkness within God … but “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. But the question remains: What are we to make of the atonement and the sacrificial language of the New Testament?

Wellman states, “Bell believes that Christ’s sacrifice is not for God’s sake. Rather, it is the ultimate revelation of the innocent victim, the final scapegoat.” Then Wellman makes an important association by claiming that Bell’s understanding of atonement has been influenced by the French anthropologist René Girard. “Girard’s theory of scapegoating illumines how Bell negotiates this knotty problem … [Jesus’] death is not demanded by God, but made necessary to reveal the folly of humanity and the necessity to begin to love and forgive the enemy” (127-128). In other words, Girard helped Bell understand that it is not God who demands the violent sacrifice of Jesus. Rather, humans demanded it. The wrath was human, not divine. James Alison, one of Girard’s greatest students and who has a brilliant curriculum for the New American Christianity, states in his book On Being Liked, “Jesus revealed that God had and has nothing at all to do with violence, or death, or the order of this world. These are our problems and mask our conceptions of God…” (23).

What I appreciate most about Bell is his attempt to live into God’s non-violent love and forgiveness. If he is one of the most admired leaders of the “New American Christianity,” he is also one of the most criticized — one might even say demonized. With passionate furor, many accuse him of being a heretic, of leading people away from the true faith, and of being a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Bell has a particular way of not responding to these accusations, and Girard is helpful in understanding why Bell’s non-response is vital for the New American Christianity. Girard states that humans tend to imitate the violence and accusations committed against us. We respond to accusations with accusations of our own. “I’m not the problem! You are the problem!” Girard writes, “If nothing stops it [accusations and violence], the spiral has to lead to a series of acts of vengeance in a perfect fusion of violence and contagion” (Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, 17). The most important thing Bell teaches and models for the New American Christianity is to not participate in cycles of accusations and violence. Wellman states that in the face of these accusations “The takeaway for Bell [is] not bitterness or accusations. It is, as he consistently says in all sorts of venues, that the story is not done; your story, our story, my story is not done” (67). Bell’s response to the harsh criticism and accusations made against him is to ignore them and move on with telling the story.

Of course, the story is ultimately not Bell’s or ours. It is God’s. The reason Bell doesn’t defend himself by imitating the accusations against him is because he has faith that God is in control. Bell can be “in a non-anxious, non-reactive state” (Wellman, 85) with those accusations because he knows it’s not about him. Rather it’s about the God who is Love; the God who has nothing to do with the darkness, violence, and the accusations of our world. For Bell, this is the God of Resurrection. He says the resurrection tells a “better story” than the stories of violence and accusations. It is the story that “culminates in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, whereby Christ reconciles all things to God. The power of the restoration of all things has no limit and works not only in the human body and soul, but also into the very roots of creation itself” (Wellman, 18).

The story of resurrection is told by the God of love who is restoring and reconciling the world back to God. We have the choice of participating in that story of nonviolence love and reconciliation, or not. If there is any substance to the New American Christianity it will look like the God who has nothing to do with violence and accusation, but everything to do with love, reconciliation, and forgiveness.

Bell is leading the way and I hope more people will follow. Wellman’s book is a great place to start.

Adam Ericksen blogs at the Raven Foundation, where he uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Adam on Twitter @adamericksen.