Bell’s Hells – The thing beneath the controversy

There has been a bit of controversy surrounding Rob Bell’s new book I playfully like to call “I’m a Universalist and there is no Hell” (I like to call it that because evidently that should have been the title based off the reaction by a particular group that made all kinds of judgments about it prior to it’s actual release).  However, the actual title is Love Wins.  I thought about doing a post on the book itself once I had it read, but I’m not sure that we really need any more voices adding to the clatter.  And boy has there been a LOT of clatter.  So, first, I assume if you want to know what the book really says you will probably actually read it and think for yourself.  Second, I don’t presume to think that anyone cares what I personally think about it, although if you would like to hear my thoughts I’d be happy to share.  What I find interesting is not the book itself, it’s almost exactly what I expected.  Rather what I find interesting is everything that has happened in regard to it’s release.  But first, some caveats.  I’m trying hard not to defend nor condemn anyone, yet I don’t want to pretend as if I’m a completely neutral spectator, so let me tell you a bit about myself.

I first heard Bell at a youth worker’s convention almost a decade ago, and he was unbelievably good.  It was a bit as if he had been able to see into some of the questions I was wrestling with and articulate and explore them in a way that was extremely helpful in putting my finger on various tensions, yet he did not give me answers that closed the door on the conversations.  He left room for me to explore and take what he had said and go further with it.  In seminary I found the podcast from his church and have been listening each week for the last eight or so years.  I have a deep exposure and appreciation for him.  His work has challenged my faith and helped me grow in many, many ways, and for that I am deeply thankful.  So, yes I am a fan.
So, when I heard about his new book I wanted to find out what it was about.  My first exposure was actually all the blogs calling Bell a Universalist and saying that he doesn’t believe in Hell.  However there was a slight problem in that the book had not been released and none of the people making these comments had actually read the book.  Yet they had already decided what it must say (because evidently there’s no such thing as paradox or nuance).
Now, Bell has been known to be controversial.  However, I’ve personally never felt like he was trying to create controversy.  To be honest, some of the most controversial stuff I’ve seen from him has flown under the radar without anyone really knowing, realizing, or saying anything.  And, when controversy has indeed sprung up, I’ve never really understood it.  I honestly still don’t get the whole Velvet Elvis controversy regarding the virgin birth, he actually affirms it on the page following the line everyone uses to say that he denies it (for those who haven’t read it, he asks if it would destroy your faith if scientists were to find a way to absolutely invalidate the doctrine of the immaculate conception, he creates a hypothetical scenario to make a point).  However, when I saw what this book was about, my first reaction was that he had actually gone out and sought the controversy this time (however, having now read the book I honestly don’t believe that to be the case).  But, all kinds of questions and observations began to be raised for me.  First and foremost, my personal reactions.
My initial reaction was judgment, Rob’s gone off seeking controversy this time.  Second was a sense of betrayal, if he says anything too controversial in this book then people who have supported and/or defended him are going to feel betrayed (a bit like those who loved the Harry Potter series and defended it against a certain group then had Rowlings out Dumbledore as homosexual after the series was over).  I’m not one to hop into the comments and defend people.  For the most part it just makes all of us look bad. I’m not interested in that.  He can defend himself if he wants, and if he asks then I’ll join in the conversation, but I’m going to try to do it with as much openness and humility as possible.  Then third was a bit of rationality, (ok, what do I actually expect Bell to say?).  Now having read the book, I got pretty much exactly what I expected.  I haven’t quite figured out what to do with my reactions, but it does give me a bit of insight into myself.
Second, everyone else’s reactions.  There were all these people making all these comments, hateful, angry, venomous comments about something they had not read.  To which I have to ask the questions “What is really going on here?” and “Who Cares?”
I understand that Rob Bell has a large following, and a lot of influence.  And I’m sure this is why when he posts a video to promote a book and the video is ambiguous enough to say that Gandhi might not be in Hell there are people who are going to feel threatened.  I’ve said long before ever hearing of Rob Bell that I think we will all be surprised at who may be where after death and it isn’t my place to judge and try to figure out who is where (I do this mainly because that seems to be the position Jesus promotes).  However, if I were to write the book no one would care, John Piper would not tweet, and life would go on without skipping a beat.  So, there seems to be to be a real fear on the part of the critics, and understandably so.  Imagine for a moment that you really believe that the only way someone can get to heaven is by praying a prayer at 11:55 on a Sunday morning at a kneeling rail (or in front of a stage at a big youth concert type thing on a Friday/Saturday night).  Here is someone with a large following saying that it might not be that simple.  Well, that will mean that those people he has influence with might not try to convert people, which will mean that tons of people will not be saved and will burn in conscious physical torment forever.  If this is your perspective, than this is a big, scary, dangerous thing Bell is doing.  Anger in some ways is justified, trying to get the message out that he’s wrong is necessary.  However, what is done with that anger, and the means by which the message is refuted is REALLY important.
Because how we go about doing things is just as important as the things we do.
I’m not sure that the angry, venomous, malicious, slanderous ways that have been employed are helpful. Actually I think it’s working against them.  I honestly think all it’s done is help to get more copies of the book selling off the shelves, make them look bad, and make more people go, yep that’s why I want nothing to do with christianity.  
And honestly, I don’t blame them one bit.  If I were not so compelled by the Jesus portrayed in the scriptures I probably wouldn’t have anything to do with Christianity either.
But, it has been really interesting to watch the arguments that have been leveled against him start to leak.  With all the media coverage there are several people who have interviewed him based off of the comments made by people who had not read the book.  They ask him a question, he answers, then the reporter seems confused because he doesn’t seem to be saying the things of which he’s being criticized.
The other reaction I have to this whole thing is, “Who Cares?”  I think the only people who care about this whole thing is the big christian subculture.  I mean yes, he’s done these interviews on these big shows like Good Morning America, but don’t most of us work?  And even if we didn’t would we be watching Good Morning America?  I mean unless he’s on Conan I’m not going to catch it.  If he’s not on The Daily Show, Letterman, or Oprah is anyone outside the popular church subculture really going to notice?  I mean many christians don’t know who he is, is one book suddenly going to propel him to the point that all the non-christians are going to suddenly know who he is and begin believing as he believes?  I suppose that could change the trajectory of what the global church believes, but I find it highly unlikely (and I think the latter is happening anyway and he’s just one small part of it).  And if all these non christians were to figure out who he is, would they even care?  I hope so, but I kind of doubt it.  And, if you take a good church history class, you’ll find that he’s not saying or exploring anything that you won’t find has been part of the 2000 year christian conversation.  So, while I can understand why people could be upset, I’m just not sure it’s as big of a deal as people are making  it out to be.  
There just seems to be a lot of fear, and I think I remember reading somewhere that perfect love casts out fear.
Which brings me to another things about my own personal reactions.  I grew up in a fairly conservative theological framework.  And when you see the sorts of things that are going on in the world (earthquakes, tsunamis, nuclear meltdowns, rebellion after rebellion after rebellion in the middle east) it really reminds you of some of the apocalyptic saying of Jesus, along with that being the rise of false prophets that would be able to deceive even the elect if that were possible (my paraphrase).  Which could really begin to make one question if the dogwatch type critics could be right.  Is Bell arising as a false prophet in the end days?  However, Jesus also says that we know trees by their fruit, and we’ll know his true followers by the fruit their lives produce.  I’m not trying to make a judgment against anyone, but it does force me to wonder who really is the false prophets?  Although, maybe at this point no one is.
Because, while this whole controversy disturbs me in a million ways (which is why  I write about it) what I do like about this whole thing is watching how Bell handles it.  Two of the more controversial figures are Brian McLaren and Rob Bell.  They get attacked from all kinds of directions with all kinds of slander, and repeatedly they handle it with humility and grace.  I haven’t seem them get angry, fight fire with fire, and start slandering back.  They seem to know something, understand something that is far beyond me.  They seem to have found ways to take it and turn it into opportunities for grace.  Opportunities for them to become better as opposed to bitter.  On top of this, helping put an end to the most extreme suffering in the world seems to part of their primary focus.  And this is what compels me to continue to explore their works as I explore my faith.  I hope to become a fraction of the type of person these two people seem to be.  Now I don’t know either of them personally, however, if who they seem to be in any way reflects who they truly are, I along with a lot of others have much to learn from them.
Now, if for some reason you have been masochistic enough to read these narcissistic ramblings of mine and would like to comment I definitely welcome and appreciate that.  However, I do ask that they be open, honest, and respectful otherwise you’ll simply be making us all look bad and wasting your time.

Ash Wednesday Reflections

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, from the earth you came, to the earth you shall return.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of lent, a 40 day preparation towards the cross and ultimately resurrection.  It is a time of preparation, it is a time of in some ways dying. 
Because death is the engine of life.
Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies it can never be anything more than a seed.  Lent is a somber time in which we make an inward journey, dying to self so that come easter we might find new life in some form.
But we hate when death comes around.  You get a phone call that a loved one has died, or you get a diagnosis from the doctor and suddenly everything changes.  What you thought you knew about life and faith all come into question.  You now find realities that you never imagined could even be possibilities.  Your world is shattered into a billion pieces and you don’t even know if the pieces can be picked up, much less where to begin. They are gone.  You are going.  
Everything has changed.
Death in this moment seems so big.  In an instant it is able to change your entire world.  And the life you lived, the faith you believed, the dreams you had held dear are gone.  You can never be that person, you can never believe quite the same as before, and those dreams are now no longer a possibility.  In this instant, you suddenly realize how precious and fragile life is and how quickly and easily it can be taken away and everything change.
And in this moment we have to decide how to react.  For many of us we become worriers.  We have come face to face with death, it has destroyed our life, and we know it will be coming again, it’s only a matter of time.  Each time a loved one doesn’t answer their phone your heart sinks and you think, ok, I knew it was coming.  We begin to take every precaution we can to keep death at bay.  We become fearful and serious.  Constantly afraid, constantly worried, constantly trying to control every aspect of life because we’ve lost control of it before and we are determined to do everything we can to keep from losing it again.
To keep from feeling that pain, that loss again.
When death comes near it bleeds onto us.  The loved one dies, but so do you.  You receive the diagnosis and you’ve got a certain amount of time left, but in that moment in many ways you died already.  
The question isn’t whether you die in those moments, you do.  The question is what kind of death do you experience?
Oddly enough when we are faced with death and we become aware of the frailty of life and the fact that we might not make it through today we actually begin to enjoy life less.  We let the fear and anxiety and worry overtake us, we try to control everything and in the process we lose the joy that makes life worth living.  It is in these moments that we should become determined to make each moment more enjoyable and meaningful precisely because it could all end tomorrow.
Lent is a somber time where we die in many ways, but the point of facing our mortality is that we will appreciate the life we’ve been given.  That instead of becoming bitter by our encounters with death we actually become better.  Instead of giving up when everything comes crashing down we realize that it is an opportunity to re-evaluate our lives, to figure out what’s truly important to us, and re-imagine what life could be like if we were to realign our lives around those most important things.  It is an opportunity to live a new life, discover a new faith, and dream new dreams.  
This doesn’t meant that we become glad tragedy has happened.  I’ve yet to meet a person who is glad that tragedy struck because of the new opportunities it gave.  Even if their life overall has become better because of it, most of us would still rather have that person back, or the additional time they thought they had.
Yet, with time we also begin to realize the truth of something that my father used to say regularly, 
“Death is a part of life.”  
Death comes.  It comes to our loved ones and it will come to us.  We can try to fight it, but no one cheats it.  Hopefully, our worst nightmares won’t come true.  However, if it does we want to make sure that the time we’ve had has been well spent.  And hopefully, if we truly learn to live life well, by the time it truly comes for us we can be ready and embrace it as an old friend,  
knowing that resurrection lies ahead.

Is Bigger Better?

“get ready, God is preparing you for something really, really small” – shane claiborne

In a moment of indiscretion I did something horrible in college. I applied to a large university. Now I really say that as a joke, because in actuality I don’t have anything against this particular institution. As a matter of fact I rather like it a lot as well as it’s cross state rival. However, I applied and was accepted to this institution and I thus I began the gauntlet of requirements being part of the school necessitated. Park in this are, then walk/run all the way across campus to get the TB test, then head over to a different corner of campus to file the change of address form, after that make sure to go see a counselor over at a different part of campus, then you can go back to your first area to actually register, etc. etc. And there was this sense that if I were to make one misstep in this horrible process filled with red tape that I was unworthy to be part of the institution. And of course no one was going to help in any way. Often times employees would refuse to give any clearer directions than go to the such and such building, which is great if you know which building that is and/or where it’s at, no help at all otherwise. So I did everything. I did it all right, I filled out my change of address forms and moved just down the road from the school.

Then one day I received a notice that my classes had been dropped. I go to investigate and find that despite me doing everything right, they had sent my bill to the wrong address, and since it had not been paid my classes had been dropped. Now the classes were full and I could not get any of the classes I needed. This was all due to their mistake, they were even able to find the change of address form I had filled out and submitted.

At this point I decided I did not like being treated like a number rather than a person, so I transferred to another smaller school where people were helpful and you felt like a person.

Now I don’t think institution number one is evil or anything like that, I simply believe it’s large. And when things get too large people become smaller and smaller, worth less and less. There are great advantages to being large, but there are also drawbacks.

I think by and large in the U.S. we tend to think that bigger is better, and we fail to see the impact that small things can have. But over and again in the scriptures Jesus seems to refer to the Kingdom of God in terms of small or hidden things, bursting forth and changing everything else (mustard seed, etc). When we look at Jesus we see that he did draw large crowds, but it also seems like whenever the crowds really start to grow he begins to teach things that will thin them out (John 6).

I don’t deny that God wants to do big things in our world. The mustard seed does grow and spread, the disciples were told they would preach in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. However, I think that God might be even more concerned with the small things, that’s where the big things begin. At the same time, a mustard tree only grows so large, then it reproduces. While the disciples were told that they would do big things, those big things were to happen through the making of other disciples.

Again, don’t think I’m demonizing big. There are advantages that come with being big, I’m well aware of it. However, often the good that comes with being big comes at the cost of our humanity, so it’s important that we find ways to grow smaller while/if we grow larger. Very often we forget that often times the big things that happen take place because of a few very dedicated people. Jesus’ core was 12, um . . . make that 11 disciples and a few women. And yet they completely changed the world as we know it. I think Mother Theresa said it best, that we can do no great things, only small things with great love. But that small things with great love can change the world.


About a month ago I started a new blog series that I hope to continue in the not too distant future. It’s full of really good stuff. However, shortly after I started it a lot of things happened and life has become quite hectic. So, for all our friends out there I just wanted to give a quick update.

Over the last month Katie has truly started her new job as well as another semester of evening classes in pursuit of her Master’s Degree. Cari started Kindergarten, so we are working diligently on learning our letters and simple words. I turned 30 and collected money to help provide clean water for people in Africa who could likely die without it. Also, I’ve been independently ordained thanks to some great friends, Don Brock and the great folks at Synergy Ministries, thank you so much, it means more to me than you know. My Parent Project® classes have started and are going well which takes up another evening, and I got called from a local community college to teach an Ethics class which I am absolutely loving. It may not pay much, but I can’t remember the last time I’ve actually earned money for having so much fun. On top of all of this, I plan to start a small business doing full service web hosting and site design. I have to wait until September to get a business license, but getting everything done on that has been taking some time as well. The plan is to offer web hosting for $5/month. However, what I’m really excited about is that I want to offer to churches a full service package where I do a custom site build to what they’re looking for and I do updates each week for $30/month. With a one year agreement I will build the site for free. My hope is that I will be able to help small churches that don’t have the money or technical resources to have a quality site that is regularly updated get exactly what they want and need that the large churches pay thousands of dollars for.

So, life is hectic but really great. Once we get more into the rhythm of all these new schedules and adjustments I’ll try and continue the series.