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.