Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Hell's Bell

Ah well.  I'd been planning on posting a few more "Your Pastor Is Not..." pieces, but for today, I'm distracted.  Distracted by the gentle flickering flames of Hellfire, as it were.   Outside of the ever-shrinking self-referential bounds of the PC(USA), the chatter in the Christian blogosphere has been spitting out controversy.

And oh, does we Christians love us some controversy.

The theological battle royale that has once again distracted Christians from their primary task of, you know, being Christian has to do with an upcoming book by Rob Bell.  Rob Bell, in the event you do not know of him, is the pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church.  He's evangelical, thoughtful, hopeful, and passionate about the Gospel.  He approaches the Gospel as good news, and pitches it in a way that neither insults the intelligence nor troubles folks who expect Good News to sound, you know, good.

Rob Bell is not...
Mark Driscoll
Here, it's important that we not confuse Rob Bell with Mark Driscoll, who leads the Mars Hill church in Seattle with testosterone-addled neofundamentalist fury, and whose primary Twitter hash tag is #greatbellowingmeatsock.

They are not even remotely the same guy.

What folks are up in arms about, apparently, is that Bell's latest book...or, rather, what they're inferring from the promo teaser and the book jacket...might possibly imply that Hell is not a central and significant part of Christian doctrine.  It's an outrageous and unbiblical heresy!  Without the burning toasty fires of Divine Fury applied to the toastable tushies of infidels, Jesus has no meaning!

It's just like John 3:16 says: God so hated the world that He had to kill His own kid so that He wouldn't have to stick unbelievers on a spit, boil them in the fondue flames of Gehenna, dip them in a vat of nicely melted aged sharp cheddar, and then munch them down.  Repeatedly.  Forever.

That's what both my fundamentalist and my new atheist friends tell me is the essence of the Gospel, and they know about Jesus better than anybody.

Now, there's no way to know what exactly Rob Bell has said, given that the book isn't out yet.   Looking at the pre-publication uproar, I find myself wondering, for a long instant, whether or not it comes primarily out of Bell just having a really, really good publicist.

I've read and listened and watched Bell, and from that foundation, I'm not sure I totally agree with him on everything.  My takes on Hell and Universalism may differ from Bell's in some nontrivial ways.  I'll know better once I've read the book.  But that Bell consistently chooses to focus on the grace and the goodness of the Gospel, and to place the joy of Christ at the heart of his proclamation, well...it's commendable.

Hell-based evangelism is and has always been a contradiction in terms.

I think he's well placed as a pastor in a church called Mars Hill, which draws it's name from an important moment in the Apostle Paul's ministry.  You know, Paul, who realized that to spread the Gospel, you can't jabber away at folks with in-group terms of art.  You have to find ways to express it that meaningfully speak it's promise to people who haven't been hermetically sealed away in the AmeriChrist echo chamber for their whole homebirthed/homeschooled/youthgrouped/biblecolleged lives.

 That is, after all, the essence of being an effective proclaimer of the Good News.


  1. I would be delighted to hear that Christianity was finding new and better ways to deny or disown the doctrine of hell. It's definitely a step in the right direction.

    But please don't try to blame it on your "new atheist" friends. That's a rhetorical tack I've heard before and it really infuriates me. As if hell were some crazy story atheists made up to discredit Christianity. "What is it with you atheists and hell?" We didn't just make it up. It's been a major part of Christianity for centuries. It continues to be so today. It's used to frighten and indoctrinate children. (I was one of them.) It serves to terrify and immiserate the elderly. (My Baptist grandmother was one of them. My wife's Catholic grandparents as well.) It gives terrible anxiety to parents worried about the eternal fate of their children. (My grandmother again, whose grief at the death of her gay son from AIDS was made all the worse by her totally unnecessary fears for his soul, which were directly aggravated by her pastor who did everything he could to undo the reassurances and comfort the rest of her family tried to give her.) The doctrine of hell is a great evil the world. It has caused unconscionable psychological harm to real people in my life, including me. It did not come from the atheists they or I knew. It came from Christians. And it seems to come straight from the savior's mouth via Christianity's sacred text. And it's one of the New Atheist's main objections to the faith.

    But if you want to say that there is just no reason for anyone to believe that we will suffer eternally after our death for our crimes in life or our disbelief in various supernatural entities, you'll get no argument out of me. I don't believe in that either.

  2. Wow, thanks for making the distinction between the 2 Mars Hill churches. A friend recommended sermon podcasts from there some time ago, and I downloaded a bunch from the meaty guy, only to be completely and thoroughly turned off and disgusted. I think she meant to recommend the Rob Bell versions...

  3. 'For God so loved the world...' and
    'the wages of sin are death, but the gift of God is eternal life'

    These are not incompatible or contrasting. They are clear. Sinners continuing in sin and not covered by the blood are a fundamental threat to the integrity of the 'world' that God lovers and cannot persist in the new Heaven and new Earth after it is redeemed, because they import the brokenness that they identify themselves with actively.

    The are actively condemned, because God so loves the world.

    We can't make God is love into Love is god without doing incredible violence to God, and the world, and our neighbors.

  4. @Wynia: Years ago, I fuddled Rob and Mark myself. I kept thinking, why do people keep saying good things are coming out of Mars Hill, when this guy seems to be preaching mostly under the inspiration of his Little Mark.

    @ Browning and BenK: I appreciate your affirmation of my statement!

  5. I dislike both actually. Bell and Driscoll, that is. Extreme on both ends of the spectrum it seems to me. I'd much rather the world hear from the likes of Tim Keller, Greg Koukl, David Platt, etc, in the proclamation of the Gospel.

    Bell and Driscoll try too desperately to be hip slick and cool in my opinion.

  6. Oh, no you don't. BenK may (or may not) have affirmed your statement, but I didn't.

    I have never claimed that the doctrine of hell "is the essence of the Gospel." To my knowledge, no "new atheist" ever has. I don't insist that you believe in hell. I don't even insist that you justify your particular version of supernatural justice in the afterlife scripturally, though I am sometimes curious as to how you can do so.

    I said that Christians have been claiming that it is part and parcel of the Gospel for thousands of years, and that they did not get that idea from atheists. And when an atheist correctly observes this objective fact about world, that does not justify your drawing a false equivalency between that atheist and those co-religionists with whom you disagree. That's dishonest.

  7. Ah, Browning. No Beloved Spear post is complete without your bitching.

    And this! Ah, yes. No True Scotsman? Already? And we're only a few lines in!

    Look, grow the fuck up, Browning. I've heard from plenty of atheists that the only purpose of Christianity is to be a dick and scream about hellfire.

    Have I heard it from other Christians? Yeah, and more often, to boot.

    But Spear has not claimed that the hell thing started with atheists, nor has he claimed that Christians don't do it. He has only claimed that he's heard it from both those groups.

    Which is true. I know you read Spear's posts primarily so you can be a jerk, but really, it would be so much easier to just not post.

    Also, nitpicking, but you desperately need to hit the Enter button when writing your huge ass paragraphs, it's hard to read them otherwise. The middle is just this wall of text you should probably deal with.

    As for the whole savior's mouth thing, go read this: http://slacktivist.typepad.com/slacktivist/2011/02/team-hell-gets-loud.html

    Examine that, please. You won't, anger suits you better, but do read that.

  8. Testing 1... 2... 3... Is this thing on? (My posts keep disappearing.)

  9. @Anonymous.

    I did not accuse anyone of making a No True Scotsman argument, nor did I make any argument that could be reasonably construed as a No True Scotsman argument. If you're going to snarl at me every chance you get, at least snarl at what I actually write instead of what you imagine I've written.

    For what it's worth, I read the blog post about the Bell book. I did not find it very persuasive, but I have no particular interest in arguing with it because I don't believe any of the stories about Jesus in the first place. So if someone who does believe them wants to interpret them in a way that jettisons the doctrine of hell, more power to them. As I said, that's a step in the right direction.

    My argument here is with the casual false equivalency between "new atheists" and fundamentalist, based on the supposed notion that both groups insist that the doctrine of hell is "essential" to the practice of Christianity. I just don't think that's true. It's not true of me, and I don't believe it's true of any of the leading lights of the "new atheist" movement.

    What is true instead is that (a) the doctrine of hell is one of things that makes Christianity as it is commonly practiced obnoxious -- a statement with which Mr. Bell would seem to agree -- and that (b) those Christians who profess the doctrine at least appear t have some basis in scripture for doing so. This is also trivially true, and you only have to read the linked blog post where the evidence for this is conveniently (if incompletely) laid out and then hand-waved away.

    Noticing this is not the same as insisting, as fundamentalists do, that Christianity requires that those verses be taken at face value. And I object to the insinuation that my correctly holding the traditions of Christianity responsible for this noxious doctrine somehow makes me equivalent to its proponents. That's like telling an abolitionist that he's as just as bad as a slave trader because he objects to the same Bible verses that the slave trader cites to justify his crimes. That is a dishonest rhetorical maneuver, and its offensive.

    [continues below]

  10. But I also want to say that David (a.k.a Beloved Spear) and I are old friends. We have known each other for around a quarter century. We both enjoy talking about, and even arguing about, religion and atheism. I can say for certain that my interest in his religious ideas and my willingness to challenge him about them from time to time are part and parcel of the abiding affection and goodwill I feel for him, and I gather from what he says to me, that the feeling is mutual.

    You, on the other hand, are clearly filled with hatred for me. I have no idea why. I have no idea who you are, or what you believe in, if anything. You've often expressed your very intense, very personal animosity towards me, but you've never really articulated a good reason for it. (Assuming that you are the same "anonymous" who regularly pops up to attack various things I've written. And I think you are, as there is a certain similarity in tone and theme and level of discourse as well. Do you decline to identify yourself because you are ashamed of yourself?) It's as if David and I are two old friends playing tennis, and you are a strange, stray dog who periodically runs slavering onto the court to attack one of the players.

    Okay. Whatever. You just don't like me. You think I'm a fool. And, like the man says, "anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell."

    P.S. Thanks for the writing advice. I'll print it out and tack over my desk.

  11. @ Browning: I'm not quite sure who Anonymous is, but it's good for you to pitch out the context we share. They aren't aware of those evenings on the beer-stench back porch of Gamma Omicron. Or of conversations about the relative merits of the Tom Waits oeuvre (I, strongly advocating Frank's Wild Years, You, his earlier work). Or of the Jolly Llama's seriously kicking cover of "What's the Buzz," which may be in and of itself sufficient for the Big Guy to give you a pass when it comes down to it.

    Or of what a great dad you clearly are to Shannie.

    Absent that context, some of what you write might be construed as trollery, which may be why a long time reader of my stuff might assume you're just picking on me. It doesn't feel that way to me at all, but I can see how it might read that way.

    So, as always, peace, eh?

  12. @David.

    Sounds like you remember the Jolly Llamas with more fondness than I do. But thank you. It was a fun time, and I'm glad you remember it that way.

    It's an interesting reference, though, because whatever verve I may have brought to my performances of that song in my twenties -- where I sung the part of Jesus, no less -- was fueled by my obsession with Jesus Christ Superstar in my teens, which in turn ahd previously led me to read the Gospels for myself and helped me form my current opinion of the Nazarene. My recollection is that we did a snippet of that song as a lead-in into Buffalo Springfield's "For What's It's Worth" -- reconstituted in protest of Bush the Elder's original Iraq war. So...

    "What's the buzz? Tell me what's happening?
    What's the buzz? Tell me what's happening?
    There's something happening here.
    What it is ain't exactly clear.
    There's a man with a gun over there
    telling me I got to beware."

    The "man" was The Man. And the only verse I sang in the intro leading up that was this:

    "Why should you want to know?
    Don't you mind about the future,
    times and fates you can't defy.
    If you knew the path we're riding
    you'd understand it less than I."

    Which I guess is Tim Rice's version of Matthew 6:34. My intention singing it was aways to imply that we should be ever suspicious of anyone -- presidents or priests -- who deflect our questions in this way.

    Speaking of questions,though, I have to wonder... "Sufficient for the Big Guy to give you a pass" on what? :)