Tag: Gospel

Reading Rob Bell’s Love Wins

Controversy erupted in the Evangelical Christian community when Rob Bell released the book Love Wins: A Book About heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.  In fact, the controversy began even earlier than the book release; the first salvos of the ensuing Christian vs. Christian war were fired in response to the book’s preceding promo video, in which Rob questioned if Ghandi was really in Hell.

I remember the hysteria when the book first out.  At that time, I was among the Christians who searched YouTube for tense interviews in which pastors and pundits laid the smackdown on Rob, confronting him with Bible verses and unyielding logic.  I hadn’t read the book, but I didn’t need to read it to know that it was wrong; after all, the Bible is pretty clear about Hell.  Looking back, I vaguely remember being open to the possibility that maybe people who didn’t hear about Jesus would get the chance to go to heaven, but even so, the suggestion that everyone would get to go was laughably false.

That was all back in 2011, during the last of my youth group days.  When I picked up tLove Wins for the first time, it was almost 2014 and my faith was in a very different place.

In fact, I read Bell’s Love Wins despite being fairly uninterested in the question of whether people go to Hell or not.  The idea that God would honor people’s decisions, coupled with my teenage experiences of actively making decisions that I thought were immoral, made it pretty easy to imagine a truly loving God nevertheless allowing some people to opt out of the party on the clouds.

For me, reading Love Wins was about identity and doubt.  Identity: Would I remain in the club of Christians who laughed about how obviously stupid certain books were without ever having read them?  Doubt: Since I had recently discovered my own frightening propensity to doubt, could Bell’s approach to the question of Hell serve as a model for how to faithfully navigate my own questions?

Identity: Would I continue to desperately cling to the certainty that I grew up with, even as that certainty continued to slip away?  Doubt: If my uncertainty won out, would the ensuing plummet cost me my entire faith?

Despite what you might have guessed from Rob’s critics, Love Wins doesn’t ever take a strong stance on who does or doesn’t go to Hell.  Bell raises a lot of interesting questions, probes the pros and cons of different perspectives in the way that only Rob Bell can, and looks carefully at a bunch of Bible verses and passages (those who say that they believe the Bible instead of Rob Bell must be talking about some other Mr. Bell…).  Even though he expresses serious doubts as to how a God of second chances could become to a God of punishment as soon as a person dies, Rob never quite picks a specific answer to the question “Who (if anyone) goes to Hell when they die?”

From that description, you might think that Rob Bell’s book is, as his critics say, a bunch of wishy-washy lack of commitment posing as “authenticity.”  For me, it was quite the opposite!  Remember, back when I read Love Wins in December of 2013, I wasn’t looking for a persuasive view of the afterlife; I was trying to navigate doubt and identity.

To my question “Can I ask tough questions and still be a Christian?” Love Wins gave a firm and persuasive Yes.  To the question “Am I crazy and/or sinful for being unsure about some standard Evangelical Christian beliefs, even the ones that everyone says are ‘clearly’ supported by Scripture and/or Tradition?” Love Wins delivered an equally unyielding No.

I still have one vivid memory of reading Love Wins.  I was riding along in the family van during winter break, probably coming back from or going to my grandparents’ house for Christmas.  It was night, but I was reading Bell’s book on my laptop’s Kindle app.  As my brother and mother slept soundly, my dad squinting out along the dark highway, I was fighting back tears.

It was the second-to-last chapter of the book, and at that point Rob is basically preaching about how good and loving God is, all intertwined with stories of a woman who cuts herself and parables of Jesus, lest the rhetoric get too abstract.  Amid Rob’s rhythmic poetry and one-sentence paragraphs (classic Rob!), I felt that same too-good-to-be-true love and acceptance that I had known before my doubts.  Maybe the God who had loved me despite my sins as a teenager could even love me despite my uncertainty as a young adult.

It took me some eight more months and 21 more books to settle on that point; a childhood of implicit and explicit threats of eternal damnation are not un-learned in a day!  Even so, in hindsight, Love Wins was nothing short of gospel to me: from the dead-end of my life up to that point, it made a new way forward, complete with a new identity, grasped by love beyond the limits of my belief.

Classical Music, Diseases, and Fundamentalism

Classical Music Purists and Fundamentalists

Have you ever met someone who loves classical music in a really annoying way?  I’m talking about the kind of purist who sincerely believes that all “real” music must sound like it was composed by a long-dead European male.

This mentality raises an inescapable question: if classical music is so much better than any other type of music, then why does it seem to be connecting with fewer and fewer people as time goes on?

The purist might resist this cognitive dissonance by saying to herself, “People who don’t love classical music need to accommodate themselves to the sensibilities and sophistication of this genre.”  Or maybe she thinks, “Everyone would love classical music if they weren’t corrupted by today’s society.”

The problem is with everyone else.  In this way, the smug purist goes on loving their music and waiting, perhaps forever, for their unsophisticated peasant friends to come around.  The thought that classical music might need, in some sense, to be altered in order to connect with life in today’s world is anathema; it threatens the purity of the one true musical expression.

(Disclaimer: Of course, I’m not talking about everyone who loves classical music.  Like any genre of music, classical music has fans who are happy to enjoy music they love without insisting that everyone else must like it too.)

There’s a kind of Christian fundamentalism that mirrors pretentious classical music lovers, and it can be found outside of churches and denominations that identify themselves as fundamentalists.  Like classical music purists, these Christians insist that their content, developed primarily by white European dudes on this side of the 11th Century, is pure and unalterable, regardless of context.

The message of Christian purists is often a gospel that frees its believers from guilt, fear of damnation, and oppression by the moralistic “law.”  That sort of gospel is very powerful and liberating for those who grew up in Reformation-era Europe back in the 1500’s and in today’s churches that are still saturated in Reformation theology.  But what about people who weren’t raised in fear- and guilt-inducing fundamentalism?  Imagine the fundamentalist’s shock when she tells her secular neighbor, “Don’t worry!  You don’t have to go to hell!  There’s a way to stop feeling so guilty about your endless moral failings!” and receives a confused look or a shrug in response.

Like the classical musician purist, the fundamentalist will likely blame the problem on everyone else.  Creative ways of bringing old insights to bear on new situations will be seen as a threat, a violation of the pure Christian gospel.  Outsiders are expected to accommodate themselves to the sensibilities and dynamics of the in-group, and insiders continue to wonder why their supposedly superior and universal content increasingly falls on deaf ears.

A Disease and A Cure

Imagine that a scientist discovers a rare, painful disease in a remote African village.  The scientist studies away and develops a cure to that disease.  He brings his cure to the village, stamps out the disease once and for all, and becomes a local hero.  But the scientist, hoping for even more glory, finds a way to unleash the rare disease across Europe, infecting millions.  Expecting to become an international hero, he promptly distributes his cure, and reverses the disease’s spread.  Yet when the public finds out that the scientist was behind the initial outbreak, the scientist is painted as a deluded villain, not a savior.

When fundamentalists are confronted by the indifference of outsiders to the gospel of guilt-dissolution and afterlife security, some react like the classical music purists, simply waiting for the outsiders to come around.  Others react like the deluded scientist: knowing a cure (gospel) to a certain disease (guilt and fear of Hell), they attempt to spread their disease to everyone else.  These fundamentalists will do their best to make everyone feel guilty enough to appreciate the good news.  Should we be surprised that Christians come off as judgmental to those outside of our club?

Two suggestions

How we can move forward?

First of all, the obsession with a pure and unchangeable Christian message, gospel, beliefs, etc. could probably be toned down.  If Jesus was so concerned with avoiding “corruption” or “compromise,” he wouldn’t have summed up the law in the commands “love God” and “love your neighbor as yourself”; Pharisees had been saying that long before Jesus came onto the scene.  If our own doubts aren’t enough to force us to re-interpret our beliefs with creativity and experimentation, then perhaps the fear of being an annoying snob can give us the push we need.

Secondly, we should start listening: listening to new interpretations of the Bible, listening to our tradition, listening to God through spiritual practices, and especially listening to our neighbors.  If God has something to say to our neighbors, and if God really loves everyone, then we should expect God to have something helpful to say about the actual problems that our neighbors are already facing.  How can we hear God’s answer if we don’t notice our neighbors’ problems?  How can we notice their problems if we insist on spreading our own?