April 8, 2011

An Indefensible Faith: Another Review of 'Love Wins'

There is no shortage of reviews on Rob Bell’s recent book Love Wins, so I am almost apologetic for writing another. But it is because of my work in apologetics I find myself compelled to participate in the conversation. My concerns go beyond his conclusions on matters of heaven, hell, and salvation because it seems that many of his probing questions depend upon a view of human logic that does not properly account for the noetic effects of sin.
Love Wins is a difficult read—not to imply it was written for an academic audience, certainly it was not. The portrait of God in scripture is a bit more complex than the picture that Bell has painted. Scripture communicates different senses of God’s will (perceptive & decretive), different senses of God’s love (general love for creation, special love for the elect), different types of God’s self-disclosure (general & special revelation), and the aspects of God’s personality that show him to be both just and merciful without moral compromise. Bell’s rendition of God appears to be flat, and that is what makes the book so difficult to read. What I mean is that Bell is very often unable to comprehend how it is that God is perfectly able to transcend human limitations of rationality and being. This is because his starting point appears to be that God is simplistic (not to be confused with the doctrine of divine simplicity) therefore there aren’t different senses of God’s love or God’s will. For example, since Scripture teaches that God desires for all men to be saved, Bell argues (through his use of question) that according to traditional views of heaven, hell and salvation, what God desires cannot be achieved.
There are those…who put it quite clearly: “We get one life to choose heaven or hell, and once we die, that’s it. One or the other, forever.” God in the end doesn’t get what God wants, it’s declared, because some will turn, repent, and believe, and others won’t. (p. 103)
He does not say who it is specifically that is declaring God doesn’t get what he wants, but clearly he is attributing this declaration to those who hold to an exclusivist viewpoint and that God “in the end doesn’t get what God wants” is a logical outcome of their view of salvation. If this is an overstated speculation, it is because Bell provides little in terms of footnotes or even in-text references, but I believe the whole book provides ample evidence to back up my claim. Bell’s statement serves as an excellent example of how many attempt to understand a passage of scripture, attempting to save God’s reputation by going beyond the biblical text to resolve perceived problems by subjecting them to the rationalized conclusions.
Is God our friend, our provider, our protector, our father—or is God the kind of judge who may in the end declare that we deserve to spend forever separated from our Father? (102)
That God must be this way or that way is a false dilemma and, if permitted to stand, makes vulnerable a host of other doctrines. If God cannot be friend, provider, protector and judge, certainly God would also struggle to be Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Again, this flattened view of God’s nature prevents him from embracing the God who revealed himself in scripture. He is challenged to let scripture speak for itself.
For any Christian who has ever engaged a skeptic, much of what Bell has written appears to be a validation of the questions they often pose, but seeing them asked by one who professes faith in Christ is a bit disorienting. With many of these questions, you can almost hear the whisper of ridicule: Christianity rooted in a literal interpretation of the Bible is foolishness. In example after example, Bell tries to force a resolution or rejection of the content with little, if any, theological engagement. He does address interpretive issues in terms heaven and hell, but many of the questions he poses do not hinge on the accuracy or inaccuracy of his understanding of those terms but whether the human mind can actually reconcile views of God and ultimate reality that, on the surface, seem to contradict.
So I have my own question: How is it that Bell can stand on the boundaries of Christianity and evaluate it through the eyes of young or unbelief? While it might seem noble to adopt this vantage point, helping young or unbelievers by trying to look at Scripture the way they do, I fear his methodology has backfired. Because his overall theology does not consistently take into account the mystery and majesty of God, Christianity can’t help but to look ridiculous. In this respect, he has conceded to the natural man that their perceptions of Christianity are correct –it is foolishness. What follows are examples that make this point:
Really? Gandhi’s in hell? He is? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt? And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know? Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number “make it to a better place” and every single other person suffer in torment and punishment forever? Is this acceptable to God? Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God? Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life? This doesn’t just raise disturbing questions about God; it raises questions about the beliefs themselves. Why them? (p. 88)
Lurking behind his effort to reframe the conversation on heaven and hell, Bell accomplishes a great deal more. Questions similar to these are often raised by unbelievers intending to impugn the internal consistency of Christianity by suggesting that our view of God is inherently flawed because it makes no sense that God would create humans only to destroy them. During the first reading of the book, I found myself waiting for Bell to say something like “its man’s sin that ultimately separates him from God.” That’s how many of us would respond to anyone else asking these same questions. Sadly, Bell never went there.
And whenever people claim that one group is in, saved, accepted by God, forgiven, enlightened, redeemed—and everybody else isn’t—why is it that those who make this claim are almost always part of the group that’s “in”? Have you ever heard people make claims about a select few being the chosen and then claim that they’re not part of that group? Several years ago I heard a woman tell about the funeral of her daughter’s friend, a high-school student who was killed in a car accident. Her daughter was asked by a Christian if the young man who had died was a Christian. She said that he told people he was an atheist. This person then said to her, “So there’s no hope then.” No hope? Is that the Christian message? “No hope”? Is that what Jesus offers the world? Is this the sacred calling of Christians—to announce that there’s no hope? (p. 3)
While I’m quite sure the scenario described here isn’t the best Christianity has to offer, it is hardly helpful to conflate this tasteless interaction with the exclusive claims of Christianity. This is a tactic of distraction used frequently by those set out invalidate Christianity, but Bell has validated the tactic and empowered those who use it by offering it up for his own use.
So is it true that the kind of person you are doesn’t ultimately matter, as long as you’ve said or prayed or believed the right things? If you truly believed that, and you were surrounded by Christians who believed that, then you wouldn’t have much motivation to do anything about the present suffering of the world, because you would believe you were going to leave someday and go somewhere else to be with Jesus. If this understanding of the good news of Jesus prevailed among Christians, the belief that Jesus’s message is about how to get somewhere else, you could possibly end up with a world in which millions of people were starving, thirsty, and poor; the earth was being exploited and polluted; disease and despair were everywhere; and Christians weren’t known for doing much about it. If it got bad enough, you might even have people rejecting Jesus because of how his followers lived. (p. 6)
Bell’s point here is a little lost. His suggestion is that if we really believe what he says we believe, we would be less focused on the needs of others. It’s a bit confusing what Bell is doing here, but his assertion is that people who are so other-wordly, awaiting their “evacuation” from this planet, have little motivation to help those in need. And while the world does have millions of people who are “starving, thirsty, and poor,” I am apt to recoil in defense, but I know Christians can always do better—I just don’t think that the failures of the Church have anything to do with belief in the realm of heaven.  Without saying it, Bell seems to be suggesting that one cannot hold a traditional view of heaven and also hold that it matters how we live on earth—another false dilemma.
“How can they hear without someone preaching to them?” And I wholeheartedly agree, but that raises another question. If our salvation, our future, our destiny is dependent on others bringing the message to us, teaching us, showing us—what happens if they don’t do their part? What if the missionary gets a flat tire? This raises another, far more disturbing question: Is your future in someone else’s hands? Which raises another question: Is someone else’s eternity resting in your hands? So is it not only that a person has to respond, pray, accept, believe, trust, confess, and do—but also that someone else has to act, teach, travel, organize, fund-raise, and build so that the person can know what to respond, pray, accept, believe, trust, confess, and do? (p. 179)
Here is a critical example of Bell agreeing with the natural man that Christianity is foolishness. The problem is, natural man can’t rightly critique spiritual matters, which is why he will miss (or dismiss) the theological category of providence. This raises for us very serious questions: is Bell’s conception of God so flat that his theology doesn’t allow for an all powerful God that can work out his plans his way? Is Bell’s God actually limited by the weaknesses of fallen creation, or at least their hindrances to travel?
Many people find Jesus compelling, but don’t follow him, because of the parts about “hell and torment and all that.” Somewhere along the way they were taught that the only option when it comes to Christian faith is to clearly declare that a few, committed Christians will “go to heaven” when they die and everyone else will not, the matter is settled at death, and that’s it. One place or the other, no looking back, no chance for a change of heart, make your bed now and lie in it … forever. Not all Christians have believed this, and you don’t have to believe it to be a Christian. The Christian faith is big enough, wide enough, and generous enough to handle that vast a range of perspectives. (p. 110)
This quote is the crux of his argument, not so much that we believe Bell’s way on heaven and hell (even though he wants us to), but that it ultimately does not matter what you believe because Christianity is “big enough” for all of our beliefs. The next question one might ask is, what about the deity of Christ? Bell would say he makes no compromise on this, and I believe him. But the deity of Christ has no relevance in the here and now if he need not be worshiped by the “good people” represented by various worldviews.
Then there is inclusivity. The kind that is open to all religions, the kind that trusts that good people will get in, that there is only one mountain, but it has many paths. This inclusivity assumes that as long as your heart is fine or your actions measure up, you’ll be okay. And then there is an exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity. This kind insists that Jesus is the way, but holds tightly to the assumption that the all-embracing, saving love of this particular Jesus the Christ will of course include all sorts of unexpected people from across the cultural spectrum. As soon as the door is opened to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland, many Christians become very uneasy, saying that then Jesus doesn’t matter anymore, the cross is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter what you believe, and so forth. Not true. Absolutely, unequivocally, unalterably not true. What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody. And then he leaves the door way, way open. Creating all sorts of possibilities. He is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe. (p. 154)
With few words but packed with lots of meaning, Love Wins is not an easy read. This should not be recommended reading for young or unbelievers, not just because of what it says, but how it models a method of theological thinking that suspends the authority of scripture and replaces it with a rationalistic approach to biblical interpretation. Don’t underestimate the ability of this book to actually shape not just what people think, but how people think about God and man’s relationship to him.

January 21, 2011

There is Nothing Pro-Woman about being Pro-"Choice"

During this observance of the Sanctity of Life in many churches during the end of January, we need to ask some questions and pursue intellectual honesty. When we say we're prolife, are we consistenly prolife? Compromises that put at risk our smallest, most vulnerable people as a solution for infertility need to be seriously reconsidered. Life is not to be created to be destroyed, no matter what the reason. Another question that deserves some intellectual honesty is, what do pro-aborts mean when they say "choice?" The answer to that question is clear as organizations like NOW, the Feminist Majority and Planned Parenthood fight voraciously for abortion demand for women and girls of any age. Logically, the only possible choice they could be referring to is abortion because for the pregnancy already exists. These women aren't being persuaded to choose what already is, they're being coerced to choose what the brutal, the selfish, and ironically...the unnatural. There is nothing pro-woman about being pro-"choice."

We must commit to protecting the life of the unborn and offer a consistent voice in the practice of our prolife ethic, providing intelligent answers to the pro-aborts who use trickery and deceit in their pro-"choice" language. As evangelicals, we need to rise above the politics within our own circles and proclaim the dignity of all humans at any age and stage. As a prophetic voice in our culture, we need not shy away from our Christian reasons for defending life, and we ought not hesitate to tear down the arguments of pro-aborts who thrive on the continual exploitation of vulnerable women, sacrificing their womb and their children, all for the ridiculous purpose of empowering secular feminism.

January 5, 2011

Tradition Without Truth

It isn’t something that suddenly happened in 2010, people have been compromising truth since the early days in the Garden. But never has it seemed so clear that people actually lack knowledge of right and wrong. Of course, most people know that murder is wrong, but few could provide a substantive reason why they know this other than appealing to some self-oriented ethical theory. When it comes to sexual ethics, plenty of books have been written on the topic. But in practice, sexuality and ethics have been deemed mutually exclusive categories. This is because the sexual revolution has accomplished what it set out to do—remove stigma from all sexual situations. Today there is almost no instance in which sexuality is subject to ethical inquiry except perhaps the if it feels good, do it hedonistic point of view.

In an effort to preserve Christian values in culture, there is often an appeal to Judeo-Christian traditions that have long been the source of societal values. But before our very eyes, these traditional values are disintegrating and are being replaced by a new vision of how we should live. The reality is, a new set of values has been established by a culture whose worldview is no longer dominated by a Judeo-Christian ethic. New traditions are replacing old ones. An interesting evidence of this turn is the meaninglessness of symbols. While these may seem like innocuous examples of the culture wars, they are quite pertinent to understanding the cultural influence of Christian tradition and values. A local newspaper recently reported that the first baby born in 2011 was delivered to couple with different last names. I continued to read without pause, but then stopped to assess my own reaction—even I had experienced a degree of desensitization to this issue. After regaining my sensibilities, I recalled that in our culture there is no longer a stigma associated with having children outside of marriage. Though possibly the mother of this newborn is simply making regular use of her maiden name for professional reasons (another recent shift), it is more likely this unmarried couple is completely unaware of the idea they have helped to cement: a child is no longer symbolic of the marital union of man and woman.

Another symbol that has gone by the wayside is the white wedding gown. While many still practice the bridal traditions of “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue,” the white wedding gown that in the past symbolized purity as the young bride is presented to her groom is now stained with the sexual mores of a new era. Brides are still be wearing white, but outside of those relationships truly functioning within the framework of a biblically informed worldview, this tradition is not even remotely emblematic of her virginity. Saying yes to the dress is restricted to its external appearance and to personal sentimentalities, not to what it had originally symbolized. The bottom line is this: when tradition is the basis for values, tradition is at risk of being replaced and values that have no substantive foundation are rendered irrelevant. So it is that the changing traditions in our culture today correspond to the irrelevance of Christian values—not due to an inability to make Christianity popular, but to make it meaningful.

When the values of a culture begin to shift, people will often yearn for the good ole’ days, an era when stigma was able to contain behavior.  For instance, there was a time when pregnancy outside of marriage would be corrected by a “shotgun” wedding, a common practice utilized to conceal untimely sexual relations from family, church, or the local coffee clutch—as if retroactively marriage makes an “honest woman” out of an unmarried mom-to-be. Similarly, social stigma—not necessarily what was best for a child—was a primary reason many unwed mothers placed children up for adoption. While shame and remorse can be an appropriate motivating factor to correct ways of thinking and living, in the wrong hands it is often misused. Stigma unaccompanied by truth is merely an apparatus of a culture not oriented toward Christ, no matter how much they may resemble the Church.

Dorothy Sayers once stated that “if we really want a Christian society we must teach Christianity and that it is absolutely impossible to teach Christianity without teaching Christian dogma.” She goes on to say that the “validity of Christian principles depends on Christ’s authority.” That said, it isn’t any wonder that we see barely a remnant of Christian values present in today’s culture. Practices rooted merely in tradition have little or no validity and, therefore, no lasting power. Worldviews have been equalized by the view that morality and spiritual truth are subjective. This does beg the question as to how well the Church—as an institution and as individual believers—is teaching Christianity. Without a source for truth outside of ourselves, we are left to our own devices. Stigma had for a time been a useful common ground approach to moral issues, but the jig is up. People know the difference between tradition and truth, and because they reject the latter the former is meaningless.

Have we been a Church committed to decision-making based on Christ’s authority or because “that’s the way we’ve always done it?” Do we take positions on matters of morality based on the politics of the moment, or have we done the work in Scripture to know what God wants us to know and live out on a given matter? If the average church-goer struggles to see the importance of doctrine, doesn’t quite understand the human condition in relation to Christ, and has not yet learned what it means to think about everyday life through the lens of Scripture—truth revealed—how can she have a gospel-centered presence in her sphere of influence? Why, in her eyes, should it even matter? If, perhaps, we focused a bit more on training men and women to think theologically and teach them how to communicate truth in their sphere of influence, there might be a degree of real and sustainable impact on culture. Invoking one set of values over another based on polls and popularity is just a quick, temporary fix for something with more serious, eternal implications.

November 12, 2010

Women's Christian Worldview Conference

The Center for Women of Faith in Culture is hosting the first annual God, Faith & Culture Evangelical Women’s Conference on April 30th, 2011 in Arlington Heights, Illinois. But this is not just another women’s conference where women come together to base new and developing friendships on shared emotional experiences. In fact, we expect that the intellectual rigor of this event will prepare you to need a nice quiet evening to process the content presented by all the speakers. Our focus is a deliberate emphasis on the life of the mind in your relationship with God–but of course, we expect you will fully enjoy your time as you hear Christian women leaders speak on different aspects of the Christian worldview.

Speakers for this conference include Dr. Halee Gray Scott, PhD, Azusa Pacific University, Jennifer Lahl, The Center for Bioethics & Culture, Pam Gillaspie, Deep & Wide, Kathy Barnette, Judson University, Caryn Rivadeneira, Christianity Today, and many others. Be sure to register online at www.godfaithculture.com and find us on Facebook.

November 3, 2010

Swaddling Cloths Project

I don't write too frequently on specific ministry activities, but I wanted to share this idea for a community ministry opportunity in time for the Christmas season. Over the weekend, our church women's ministry team met to fine tune plans for our Christmas brunch. As a result of our meeting, we opted to do away with the formalities of a Christmas brunch and, instead, have a Christmas continental breakfast. Here's why:

A story recently ran in the local newspaper about a crisis pregnancy center in my very small town, a center I didn't know even existed.  So given the isolation of things in our rural community, I felt compelled to assist. We discussed it at our meeting and decided to use the Christmas brunch -- which evolved into the  Christmas continental breakfast --  as an opportunity for the women at church to serve the needs in the community by gathering the necessities associated with bringing a new life into the world.  Essentially its a diaper drive, but we hope for a variety of supplies for infant care. It's will be informal, lacking the panache often associated with women's holiday events.  We call it The Swaddling Cloths Project (Luke 2:12).

The narrative of Jesus birth has been imprinted in our minds with the Wisemen following the star and culminating in the joy of finding of Jesus lying in a manger. And I'm quite sure it was a joyous sight! But reading the text again in Luke, I was struck by the circumstances of the manger scene. There was no room at the Inn, that's the reason for the manger scene. Hardly ideal circumstances for caring for a young child, though I'm sure they were thankful for shelter. But I wonder, does this  passage still remind us of Jesus' very humble condescension or has it simply become a reason for holiday festivities? This must have also been a very humbling experience for Mary and Joseph. Ok, I concede that Mary gave birth to the Son of God and they had a pretty awesome birth announcement with the Star the Wisemen followed. And we can't forget about the angels who spoke to them. It is fair to say that both the natural circumstances and the supernatural encounters comprised a very humbling experience.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”  (Luke 2:11-12 ESV)
The Swaddling Cloths Project is an opportunity to reflect on our Saviors humility and to share his love by giving towards the practical needs of others. While Mary and Joseph were hardly in a crisis pregnancy situation, from their human perspective they probably waivered between trust and doubt throughout the pregnancy and after the birth of Jesus. This Christmas, consider reaching out to the crisis pregnancy centers and honor the choice of life by fulfilling some of the practical needs of a young mother or family. If you are able, share with these young people that God is looking out for them and has sent his church to care for those in  need.