An Invitation

I want to invite you to reconsider Christianity.  Let me explain…

Over the last few weeks there has been an explosive controversy in many Christian circles in North America over a book.  Certainly, this is not the first time such a boiling controversy has taken place. (Heck, the only reason I started reading the Harry Potter books is because someone told me they were dangerous and evil. Turns out they’re delightful.) This time the controversy is about Rob Bell’s next book, Love Wins, which revists some traditional doctrines of salvation, heaven and hell.

However, unlike some previously controversial books like The Da Vinci Code, the book in question has been written by one who self-identifies as a Christian and happens to be an influential pastor. He has been denounced and dismissed by major evangelical leaders in North America and for about a week blogs and twitter were on fire with discussions of the merits or problems of the book. An accessible New York Times article explains the controversy, and it was featured also in CNN’s Belief blog.

But here’s what is particularly striking about all this: no one has read it yet.  Because it hasn’t yet been published. Sure, a few people have seen some advance chapters and there is a promotional video but, still, no one has read it. Before moving on, I should note that I haven’t read the book either so I don’t know if in the end I will agree with it or not…but getting mad before the conversation starts won’t allow me to hear what this person has to say in the first place.

Nevertheless, this author has been accused of a variety of things like being a “universalist,” and “unbiblical” and it seems that people are drawing boundary lines left and right.  These knee-jerk reactions, at least to my mind, are unhelpful and reveal just how narrow many people’s understanding of Christianity really is. It is amazing to me that people will hold so tenaciously to their own particular Christian tradition of understanding that when they encounter ideas that fall outside it they are viewed as non-Christian or threatening. The truth is that Christian “tradition” is a much wider river than many people are willing to acknowledge they are swimming in.

Are you a mystic?  Try reading John’s gospel, the book of Ephesians, Julian of Norwich,  Meister Eckhart or Bernard of Clairvaux’s commentary on the Song of Solomon.  Are you concerned with social justice?  Try Isaiah, Jeremiah, Malachi, Luke’s gospel, John Chrysostom, Martin Luther King Jr., or Mother Theresa.  Do you have a penchant for ritual and structure? Look at the book of Hebrews, the Didache, the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, and large portions of the Orthodox and Catholic traditions.  Are you philosophically minded?  So were Paul, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Gregory of Nyssa, Thomas Aquinas, and Alvin Plantinga (to name a few).  Do you have existentialist leanings?  Try Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky and maybe even Augustine.  Do you struggle with the concept of hell?  So did the early Christian writers Origen and Evagrius (among others up to the present).  Are you a pacifist?  So was Menno Simons…and Jesus.

All of these writers and thinkers considered themselves Christians. All of them were “biblical” insofar as they read the Bible and used it as the foundation for their theology, philosophy and lives. All of them came to different conclusions on many issues. Ernst Käsemann, a respected German New Testament scholar from the 20th century, actually argued that the diversity of Christianity, rather than a monolithic Christianity, is founded in the diversity of the New Testament itself.

So here is my two-part invitation:
(1) If you are reading this and are not a Christian, I invite you to reconsider your definition of Christianity.  Have you had negative experiences with a group of Christians that left a bad taste in your mouth?  So have I…but Christianity is a wide and deep river or, to switch to a biblical metaphor, a large and diverse body.  It might help to remember that any Christian or Christian group is only one part while the head will always remain Jesus Christ.
(2) If you are reading this and are a Christian, I invite you to reconsider the way you define Christianity. Do you really, deep down, consider only your set of beliefs to be Christian or “biblical”?  You’re probably wrong.

Ben Edsall

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14 responses to “An Invitation

  1. Totally agree with your points here, Ben. In fact, I think we can be even stronger with one of your later paragraphs:

    Are you a mystic? So’s Jesus. Jesus has the Spirit descend on Him like a dove in a trinitarian firestorm after His baptism.
    Are you concerned with social justice? So’s Jesus. Jesus continually rails at how the poor and underprivileged are treated, identifying “bringing good news to the poor” as central to His ministry from the outset.
    Do you have a penchant for ritual and structure? So’s Jesus. Jesus sets up rituals like the Eucharist.
    Are you philosophically minded? So’s Jesus. Jesus gets into some heavy debates with scholars during His ministry – He does get frustrated, but more with the content of their arguments, not with the process of argument itself.
    Do you have existential leanings? So’s Jesus. It is precisely this facet of Christ Himself that made Him so attractive to Augustine, etc.
    Do you at least wrestle with the issue of hell? So’s Jesus. Jesus talks a lot about hell, but you never get the feeling he LIKES it. The whole point of Him discussing it is to stop people from going there.
    Are you a pacifist? So’s Jesus. “Turn the other cheek” comes to mind.

    What I’m saying is that, Jesus is the epitome of all that’s best about our different emphases within Christianity. That makes Him remarkable, because He can be so utterly wholistic, more than any of us can dream. But more than that, if the Christian community is going to be “the Body of Christ” (I hear we’re meant to be), that means we must accurately portray Christ to the world. To do that, it’s not enough to tolerate this diversity – it’s absolutely essential that we encourage and embrace this diversity, so long as it accurately portrays an aspect of Who Jesus is.

  2. I had heard of the controversy, but wasn’t aware that the book wasn’t even out yet. While there is such a thing as un-biblical, we should at least hear someone out before we burn them at the stake.

    One thing to remember about the promo is that controversial statements are crafted to create buzz… and sell books. It is a business calculation.

    • @ Matt: I agree that Jesus is the center (as that old song goes), but I am curious about your description of him as struggling with the concept of hell, that seems to be not necessarily the same as not wanting people to go there. Just a thought.

      @ Mike (aka Dad): I agree that “there is such a thing as un-biblical,” I would just like to ask whose interpretation of a given passage counts as biblical. It is a conversation to be had, a destination at which we attempt to arrive, rather than a criteria by which we throw others under the theological bus.

  3. You know what this controversy reminds me of? A boy holds up his finger near his brother’s forehead and says, “I’m not touching you! I’m not touching you!”

    Don’t encourage them, either of them.

    • Bell is the one holding up his finger. It’s obvious that he wrote his book to make people think and to encourage them in Christ, but he and his publisher knew the landscape of the church in America and designed the statements in his promotional material to provoke a polarizing response.

      By don’t encourage either of them I meant stop taking sides. Bell did say some questionable things already, people did go over the line in questioning those things, and then the internet exploded with people taking sides. There’s been good discussion over this, but was it worth the the tiff we American Christians just had in front of everyone? Both sides need a time-out.

      This is part of a bigger issue of unity between the emerging church and the rest of American evangelical churches. We would both benefit from more maturity and better communication in our relationship.

      • I think we would all benefit from more maturity and better communication in the body of Christ. Absolutely.

  4. That’s why the only one of your list that I “tweaked” was the hell one, Ben – though you’re right, I could have been clearer. I see a direct connection between universalists and Jesus in that BOTH of them do NOT want people to go to hell. The difference is that universalists choose to solve that problem by denying hell, while Jesus chooses to solve the problem by telling people how to avoid going there, through trusting in His death on the cross and living that trust in obedience to His Lordship.

    Oh, and Mike, great point – isn’t it amazing how well people can read a book that hasn’t been published, when they do so through the lens of the plank in their eye?

  5. Pingback: I think I’ve got March Madness! « logic_and_imagination·

  6. Nicely put Ben – and thanks for pre-empting the discussion here on WF with a notice that the book is still pre-publication. I’m with you in terms of chastising Christians for jumping into a battle so prematurely, and displaying a childish inability to participate in civil public conversation (see more commentary here: http://being-the-body.blogspot.com/2011/02/love-wins.html).

    I’ve begun to fear whether this sort of quick-to-debate, publicity hungry attitude is becoming an embedded part of American evangelical Christian culture, as we’ve seen so many examples of this episode over the past decade. It’s enough to lead me, as a scholar, and future evangelical writer to consider some concrete steps to not only avoid the sort of conduct on display here, but also to consider ways in which to boycott this culture and consider how I can live into an alternative.

    I think it’s also worth noting that this whole thing is a great bit publicity stunt by Bell’s publishers (if you don’t believe me, check out the language in their press release: http://www.harpercollins.com/books/Love-Wins-Rob-Bell/?isbn=9780062049636). They wanted a furor over the book, so that we’d all run to the bookstore to give it a read and “see for ourselves.” I for one, take this as good reason to boycott the book entirely. HarperCollins needs to reconsider whether they are participating in public communication in an anti-theological way. Any suggestions for an public anti-debate on hell?

  7. This post & chain is delightful and encouraging. As a Christian who’s surviving a psychiatry residency and finds herself applying various diagnoses to Christian culture (out of humour or cynicsm or both), it’s nice to see a non-black-and-white discussion of such things. Your “diversity of Christianity” passage will likely end up among my often-quoted. Not that diversity or grey-areas are inherently a “virtue” per se, but I’d never heard it phrased quite like that and it does seem to be something God enjoys. Other than ‘Ernst Käsemann,’ any other authors you’d recommend that touch on this? I’m not even sure if anything in my “Quotable Lewis” phrased it as well.

    Along a similar vein – Ben, this reminds me of the Navigators evening back at UO when some sweet Christian was arguing oh-so sincerely (and legalistically) that Christians should never drink beer, and you, always devil’s advocate (how can we re-title that phrase?) and enraged by his lack of disclaimer, argued for hours and culminated in suggesting having all Bible studies at a bar henceforth. I wonder, will Heaven be as fun without such arguments? Perhaps God designed black-and-white thinking for his enjoyment? Stepping back, the boy holding up his finger analogy is actually quite funny. And, afterall, in psych circles, we do say that humour is a mature defense-mechanism.

    (p.s. if i am remembering that discussion incorrectly, or changed it to suit my purposes, I do apologize…)

    • Hi Mary! Great to hear from you.

      I’m glad you find this delightful. (That is much better than a number of alternatives.) I would love to hear some of your diagnoses of Christian culture!

      I am sad to say that there are far too few authors who say things like this and those that do often have a more polemic tone than one might want. However, I just finished a book by Scot McKnight called The Blue Parakeet which touches on this question at the level of how we read the Bible. Had I written the book some things would have been phrased differently (maybe some different analogies) and I would nuance his appeal to “the Great Tradition”, but to be fair the book is written at a very “popular” level. Generally, I like it.

      G.K. Chesterton makes a similar point about the diversity of the body of Christ in his book Orthodoxy (I can’t remember where) with an analogy of a giant misshapen rock that balances on a single point with any irregularities on one side being balanced by irregularities on the other. (Unfortunately, he applies this excellent image to economic situations as well so that the extremely poor Christians in poor places are balanced by rich Christians in rich places. Not by generously aiding the other, but simply by virtue of being in different socio-economic classes.)

      If you’re in for a more scholarly treatment, J. D. G. Dunn’s Unity and Diversity in the New Testament is a good resource. Not the final word, but a good resource. (The third, expanded edition came out in 2006 but the original is from 1977. With a few exceptions, the content is basically the same.)

      However, both these scholars focus exclusively on the New Testament in their works. For a treatment of later Christian (esp. Patristic) developments, try some works by Mark J. Edwards. (There’s always the flawed but provocatively written Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity by Walter Bauer from 1933 but translated into English in 1971.) Too far beyond the New Testament and I am well out of my field of “expertise.”

      As for the argument about drinking, let’s face it, I’ve had so many arguments in my life that they tend to run together…but your story does sound like me. I would still advocate bible studies in bars and I still feel (perhaps more strongly) that basing an anti-drinking position on the Bible is ludicrous.

      Finally, who doesn’t change memories/stories to suit their purposes? And anyway, who says we don’t get to argue in Heaven? That sound more like hell to me.

      Thanks for stopping by and thanks for your comment, Mary.

      Cheers,
      Ben

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