Edit 4/9/2011: Please read my follow up to this post.
I can only assume, but I think you hate Rob Bell mostly because he is asking hard questions about long held assumptions of serious pieces of Christian orthodoxy. Most of the readers of my blog could speak of a conversion experience in which hell played a large role in our decision making and now some guy in dark rimmed glasses from Michigan is taking shots at that very understanding of eternity. Let’s be honest, if Rob Bell steals hell how will we coerce those horrible atheists to love Jesus. Hell gives us the power when we talk about God and is the ace up our sleeve. There are a number of problems with this way of thinking namely the fact that we use hell as tool to scare the world into believing that Jesus loves them. So I think you’re scared that if someone steals hell, you may be forced to live a life of love rather than one of coercion. You’re afraid to give up the power that comes with believing in hell and with that power goes your legitimacy. Without hell you can’t scare people into God’s Kingdom, you have to love them, no matter what.
So hate on if it makes you feel right and gives you a false hope that God likes you because you are more orthodox than Rob Bell. BTW not sure Jesus gives a damn about orthodoxy, he sorta destroyed orthodoxy everywhere he went.
I debated writing about this because I can’t believe that THIS is what we are talking about when our military killed 9 young boys in Afghanistan who were cutting firewood. I debated writing about this because as I type Muammar Gaddafi is killing his own people and we do nothing but complain about gas prices. Also, people in Reading, PA will sleep outside tonight, while you scour the internet looking for that latest word concerning the Rob Bell saga. But I am weak and arrogant and think people actually read this blog. If you can’t tell I’m slightly annoyed, the behavior of many of my peers has made me feel ashamed of my own tribe. I believe this will pass but we won’t change, we will just lie in wait, poised with our stones in hand looking for the next person to ask questions that make us uncomfortable and that saddens me.
Of all the interviews, reports and commentary on the uprising occurring in Egypt this is the image I find most compelling. This anonymous women is captured breaching the line between protestor and military. This act goes beyond shouting, rock throwing, tear gas and batons. With this kiss the protestor is able to encounter the other intimately and express fully her desire is not for physical violence but about a violence against an oppressive system. Between this photo, Bruce Springsteen and a few beers with friends I’ve been working towards some conclusions on what it means to live a Jesus-life in the realities of our violent world.
Bruce Springsteen covers a dozen or so Pete Seeger songs on his ablum “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions” and a week ago while I was making dinner “O’ Mary Don’t You Weep” began to play. The song retells the Exodus story with all of it’s violence in tow, proclaiming O’Mary don’t ya weep, don’t mourn, Pharaoh’s army got drown-ded. However the song is traditionally thought to be referring to Mary of Bethany’s weeping at the death of her brother Lazarus. Why would this slave song refer to such a violent act when referring to the raising of Lazarus? A violent uprising by the slave population would have been impossible with their limited communication and networking possibilities.
So as the chicken began to brown I realized, that this is not a call to physical violence but a call to remember the faithfulness of God. The singers of this song had no hope of saving themselves but were waiting for God to act as he did in the Exodus and as he did with Lazarus. However this song carried with it a subversive code, a prayer that cried out like Abel’s blood (Gen. 4:10) or Israel’s groans (Ex 2:23), or even the way Mary’s weeping caught the attention of Jesus (John 11:33). This act of singing, although physically non-violent, gave hope to the oppressed and that hope spawned the abolition of slavery which did great violence to the southern economy . Although much blood was spilled over slavery, slaves didn’t start the war, slaves subverted a system and put an entire nation at war with itself.
Like many, I struggle with the tension between how God is revealed in the Old Testament versus what we read in the New Testament but Bruce and the woman pictured above have brought me some clarity recently. It’s not that Christianity is non-violent, it’s quite the contrary, when practiced rightly Christianity is the most violent of all faiths. Jesus’ love for others disrupted social, religious and political systems. There is an element of physical violence that we often ignore when using subversive tactics and that is the violence done to those that sing the songs and those that protest with a kiss, it’s the violence done to a silent Jesus as he is questioned by Pilate.
Lately I have become more and more aware of the ways in which the message of Jesus has been tamed and co-opted by Western minds and powers. As we all have seen religion can be effectively used as the “opiate for the masses” soothing are worries and promising us a happy life that winds down with grandkids and 401k’s. The Gospel was not intended for use as a self help strategy, a guide to personal morality, nor as an antidepressant; rather Jesus is announcing the world as it is will be no more and calls us all to be a part of something new.
Jesus calls for violence, but not the predictable type that dresses in camouflage and carries a gun. Jesus calls for the violence found in a kiss or in a song, the violence in feeding the hungry, the violence of speaking up for a bullied student, the violence of learning Spanish rather than teaching English or the violence of self denial. Whether you know it or not these are violent acts and they tear down the world as we know and build up what Jesus calls the Kingdom of Heaven. So let us lay down our guns and practice a violence that builds a Kingdom.
…maybe not in the traditional sense because I have something to write(or type)which is precisely my point. It may seem harmless enough but words often fail us. Because our language is captured inside a culture we rarely notice, in fact you’re probably still wondering what I’m talking about. I’m not writing at all, in fact I can’t write most letters in cursive anymore, but I can type. I would never say I’m typing a blog post or typing an email because you would think I’m weird and too technical. I’m not advocating that we change our speech or become more precise in how we talk about “writing” our emails. I’m more interested about the strange ways in which language works when we speak theologically.
Categorically there are a number of ways people talk about God, these categories are helpful at times to develop a framework or arena not only to discuss but also to teach, worship and develop a community. So what’s the problem? The problems begin when our words, analogies and theologies become our god and our ideas about God take prominence over all else.It happens all the time, we subscribe to a certain idea, school or camp and we like the comfort that said camp provides so it becomes part of our identity. So far so good, but it rarely stops there. As we continue in this community we become more and more convinced that we have found the best expression of the Christian faith that exists. Once we get to this place we begin determine the flaws of other traditions and say things like “that isn’t biblical” or “they’re mistaken, God doesn’t work that way”. What has happened at this point is we have begun to defend our ideas and forgotten about the actual God we are discussing or worshiping. These are still minor in comparison to what is happening in current theological dialogue.
What happens when the sermons are answering questions from yesterday? What happens when the answers have changed along with the context? What happens when the one size fits all curriculum doesn’t fit? What happens when the categories change? What happens when we can’t even agree on the beginning of the conversation? What happens when the language changes so much that one group is unable to speak to the other? Whether you’re aware or not this is where we are, leaving a modern world and walking (crawling) into the postmodern. We are operating with two languages but not communicating, our words are failing us and its tragic. Many will be lost during this transition, because leaders don’t know and (often) don’t care to know the language of the upcoming generation.
How did we arrive here? I’ve been thinking about it lately and it mostly has to do with time travel…sorta. Rather than retrace the last 100 years of evangelical history I’ll say it like this; some of the tenets of postmodern thought showed themselves in our culture namely relativism, the church reacted and retreated. Calling a spade a spade the church began preaching against it, moving in the opposite direction of the anti-christ called postmodernism. However while the church was retreating from culture to avoid the “mark of the beast” it became more and more out of touch with the reality of a postmodern epistemology. Meanwhile the western landscape was changing: music, movies, TV, books, educational theory, and people. I believe we identified our enemy wrongly, postmodern thought has never been an enemy to Jesus. As the culture surrounding the church changed the church continued to meet people on the church’s terms. Eventually the church realized that it has become less effective in serving its surrounding community and voila the church uses it’s time machine (cultural ignorance) to move into contemporary culture. One that unfortunately it has lost touch with. Enter the Missional Movement, the movement that engages, rather than retreats, a movement that seeks to enter culture and transform it, not condemn it. That’s good news, but the missional movement has it’s roots in the emerging/emergent/postmodern ideology… just when you thought we were getting somewhere. With so called baggage of postmodernity missional theology/activity was seen as a liberal social gospel etc. Some were unaware that the advocates of Missional theology were operating under new categories and the zealous missional movement was unable or unwilling to codify there new categories. Remember all of this was/is happening while people are speaking two different languages.
There is about 500 books to discuss the nuance in postmodernity and the discernment that should be used by the church in wading through this era, you can read those if you want to. I am merely identifying what I think has happened. The church jumped when postmodernity was emerging and the earth (with it’s people) kept spinning underneath our feet. Over the past 15-20 years many individuals in the church have been landing with new questions and they (me) are experiencing dissatisfaction with the church for not being a place where they fit. In an effort to keep home field advantage the church has been holding on to what it knows, propositional truth claims, doctrinal statements, gospel tracts, Kirk Cameron, and church growth. These things are less than helpful for those that are now landing with a new found postmodern worldview, rather than use mind control to remove this worldview the church needs to see what the Gospel looks like for those who are seeing the world with new glasses for the first time.
It’s easy for these people who are now landing (me) to criticize however, criticism without offering creative alternatives is useless and devisive. I hope I can be one that offers constructive ideas but it feels impossible at times when we pretend we speak the same language. Both sides on this issue need to take responsibility for the fractures that exist, which means practicing patience and generosity, sacrifice and discernment, forgiveness and did I mention patience. So the question needs to be raised “How long will we allow our words to fail us?”
My wife has bruise on her leg from the ottoman in our living room. Over the past week she has walked into it a number of times, not because she’s clumsy but because we moved our furniture to make room for our Christmas Tree. This tree also caused me to pour almost a gallon of water on the floor because I was careless, it has caused my son Jacob a number of tears because of its sharp needles and it has caused my dog Duke extra stress because he is scolded every time he tries to drink the tree’s water. I feel bad about the bruise, I’m upset about the water on the floor, I wish Jake would learn his lesson and I am annoyed with Duke. All of that said, I love having a Christmas tree for all of the same reasons you do, the smell the lights and they way it feels to have a little something green inside the house in this otherwise drab time of year. All of these inconveniences in some way brought me think about what this tree has to do with Advent at all. I’m sure there is a reason pagan or Christian that you could find on Wikipedia but the idea of inconvenience struck me. In an inconvenient way this tree represents the birth of Jesus.
Jesus came to us through an inconvenient pregnancy. To say the very least he was a surprise to Mary and unwanted by Joseph. The first instinct of Joseph was to divorce his fiancé quietly and move on with his life. However after a dream Joseph is convinced (or called) to stick with this supposed virgin who is pregnant. This was inconvenient and changed the life of Joseph considerably, in that way the birth of Jesus is quite rude, unexpected and even uninvited. This new baby who is under Joseph’s care will take up valuable space and time in his life(and he ain’t even the baby daddy).
The birth of Jesus was inconvenient to the religious system of the first century; this baby would soon be causing uproar in Israel. The very birth of Jesus signaled the end of an era and the beginning of new fulfillment, one that included the least religious and the least deserving. The incarnation of Jesus upsets a very comfortable relationship between Israel and their occupying force, Rome. This was and is inconvenient for those who were benefiting from religious power. Speaking of Rome, this Jesus would turn out to be inconvenient for the Empire as well its undoing was arguably caused by Jesus’ followers.
Often Jesus acts in a way that interrupts lives, religious institutions and power structures. My Christmas tree probably won’t upset any power structures or reinterpret any long-standing doctrines but it has reminded me that often the message of Jesus isn’t convenient and probably causes more trauma in the short term than we’re accustomed to. Should Christmas be a time where we are inspired to interrupt, to speak when we aren’t invited to and inconvenience imposing structures? Or Should we be content with leg bruises and pines needles on our carpet?
I don’t know why, but for the past few months I’ve been trying to give order to my thoughts. Maybe it’s because I’m not currently teaching or completing school assignments. There does seem to be some sort of void that continues to go unfulfilled as the days pass me by. If I devoted the time I could give a more precise reason for this blog but the story involves a multiple lumbar punctures, numbness in my left side, unexpectedly dropping out of seminary, a blown engine on my 2 year old car and host of other so called tragedies that are uninteresting at best.
…so this blog is a reflection of a void that is being filled by incomplete, incorrect, unorganized, unsolicited, irreverent and irresponsible thoughts. All of that comes through the imperfect PROTESTant tradition, which invites to itself protesters, those that are not satisfied with the way things are, those who look for something new, those who refuse to accept that this is all there is. So I protest, but not merely for fun, for me, for my sanity, for the void that needs filling and for all those who are unaware that there is something to protest.