The World Wide Religious Web for Tuesday, January 3, 2012


LOVE WINS? “2011: The Year of the Hell Debate.”

I AGREE WITH THIS LETTER: “All American Muslim: An Open Letter.” “In our view, it is fundamentally unjust to tar all or most Muslims with the brush of extremism; and, as Christians and Americans, we must never countenance injustice. Moreover, effectively countering the threats posed by genuine extremists requires us to welcome as friends and allies Muslims who share our opposition to radicalism and violence, who value their American citizenship and American freedom just as we do, and who contribute constructively to their communities and the larger society. When we treat our Muslim fellow citizens justly, and when we welcome them as partners in our efforts on behalf of life, liberty, and human dignity, we are being true both to our Christian faith and to our American heritage.”

SANTA CLAUS IN TURKEY: “Is Santa the Canary in the Coal Mine?” I’m not sure what to make of this post, but there’s something funny in a Jew writing about a Muslim’s view of a Christian saint.

EVANGELICALS FOR MITT? “An Open Letter to the Romney Skeptics.”

COMPASSIONATE CONSERVATISM? “Santorum’s evangelical surge is about more than Christian Right.”

NUTTY POLITICS, BUT NICE GUY? “The Compassion of Dr. Ron Paul.”

COLLATERAL DAMAGE: “Divorce Rate Among Afghanistan, Iraq War Vets Increases by 42 Percent.”

BUT THE INTELLIGENT DESIGNER ISN’T: “Intelligent Design Is Dead: A Christian Perspective.”

INQUIRING MINDS WANT TO KNOW: “Was Arminius an inclusivist? Continuing a conversation.”

THE CHALLENGE OF EVANGELICAL AESTHETICS: “Art, Conscience, and Theological McCarthyism.”

RELIGION & POP CULTURE: “Let Lennon be Lennon and forget Cee Lo Green.”

LET THE JOKES BEGIN: Ted Haggard to appear on “Celebrity Wife Swap.”

FIFTY PERCENT: “Why Young Adults Are Leaving the Church.”

HOMILETICS MASTER CLASS: “Preaching when parched.”

INFOGRAPHIC: “How the Bible Feels.”

OBVIOUSLY, IT’S A SLOW NEWS DAY: “Tintin’s Politics.”

INSIDE JOKE FOR PHILOSOPHERS OF RELIGION: “Transworld Irony.” “It is possible that in every possible world there exists at a college named after John Calvin a philosophy professor who offers a free will defense for the problem of evil.”

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The World Wide (Religious) Web for Tuesday, June 21, 2011


“Why Liberal Religious Arguments Fail.” Over at Religion Dispatches, Peter Laarman reflects on what kinds of rhetoric are helping the pro-same-sex-marriage crowd, and concludes that religious argument is not one of them. Instead, personal testimonies are.

Every poll and every wise observer points out that gay-affirming folks have not been winning on account of superior arguments, whether arguments from the Bible or theology or science. They aren’t winning on account of their superior debating skills. They’re winning by being present and visible in faith communities: by coming out in ways that clergy and congregations can’t ignore. Gay people are winning because straight people who love and respect them are coming out right along with them.

The classic instance is the faithful older church woman—a devoted and beloved member of the community—who, at just the right moment in a congregational meeting, stands up and says, “Well, friends, I guess we can argue about all of this until the cows come home. All I know is that ________, my ________, is as dear a child of God as I will ever hope to be.” She then goes on to tell the story of she found out about ________, how they stayed close, and how her heart was changed. Bingo. Are we ready for the vote?

Those of us who oppose same-sex marriage need to pay attention to Laarman’s point. The momentum in the debate over homosexuality in general and same-sex marriage in particular seems to be shifting. This rhetorical strategy seems to be one reason why.

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Of course, the pro-same-sex-marriage crowd hasn’t given up on argument. For a taste of one such argument, which is becoming increasingly common, see “Bible condemns a lot, so why focus on homosexuality?” Expect to see more of this kind of argument in the coming days. Oh, and have a reply ready.

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“Offense and Criticism in the Marriage Debates” takes a meta-look at the attempt to shut down arguments against same-sex marriage under the banner of being offended by them.

The key realization is that offense operates within the realm of reason. When I am offended, I have not simply felt resentment, nor merely intuited a wrong; I have performed a cognitive act, namely, judging based on what seem to me to be good and understandable reasons for that act of judging. Whenever we make a judgment of fact (x is) or value (x ought to be), we commit ourselves to the truth and worth of our judgment. To do otherwise disqualifies us from reasonable discussion, as there would be no reason to be taken seriously if we did not claim that our judgment had worth.

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Maureen Dowd (predictably) mocks Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York for opposing same-sex marriage. George Weigel and Elizabeth Scalia are not amused. Meanwhile, Kathryn Jean Lopez notes the surprisingly positive coverage The Today Show gave Archbishop Dolan on a recent visit to Rome.

Successfully communicating Catholicism [or Christianity] is the same as it ever was: It’s about integrity. As Pope Benedict put it, “It must not be forgotten that believers’ style of life needs to be genuinely credible.” Even more eloquent than Archbishop Dolan’s words on The Today Show was the clear witness of his own humanity and faithful authenticity.

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“When Churches Play at Politics” helpfully explains why churches qua churches should steer clear of partisan politics:

The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are not governing blueprints, ministers are not policy experts, and the church is not a place for political advocacy. It is a place to minister to souls, to heal wounds, and to dispense grace. So while ministers certainly have a First Amendment right to express their political views, they should realize that there are substantial costs when the faith to which they have declared their allegiance is seen, with some justification, as merely a tool of a specific political ideology or subordinate to a political party.

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God Wins is Mark Galli’s book-length response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins. Christianity Today excerpts chapter 1, which deals with two kinds of questions (and Bell’s book is full of questions). Here’s something good to keep in mind about questions:

…questions driven by faith and questions driven by self-justification can sound very similar. Sometimes they can be identical in their wording, but they are not identical in their motives. A question can be grounded in trust in God’s goodness—or it can be a demand for a sign. God is pleased with the former, but not so pleased with the latter.

You can read my own review of Love Wins here.

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“Tiger Dads vs. Sexualized Daughters.” Good stuff for dads trying to raise wholesome daughters in a highly sexualized culture.

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Apropos of the previous post: “Women Who Lost Virginity Early More Likely to Divorce.” Parental choices have consequences in the lives of their children.

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“Fathers: Key to Their Children’s Faith”:

In short, if a father does not go to church-no matter how faithful his wife’s devotions-only one child in 50 will become a regular worshipper. If a father does go regularly, regardless of the practice of the mother, between two-thirds and three-quarters of their children will become churchgoers (regular and irregular). One of the reasons suggested for this distinction is that children tend to take their cues about domestic life from Mom while their conceptions of the world outside come from Dad. If Dad takes faith in God seriously then the message to their children is that God should be taken seriously.

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“NBC apologizes for cutting ‘Under God’ from Pledge of Allegiance.” Actually, I think NBC left out the phrase, “one nation, under God.” Were they trying not to offend Southern sympathizers and atheists? Stupid, stupid, stupid! Although, to tell the truth, I was offended that NBC inserted a comment about the Masters in the middle of the pledge. Perhaps golf is the new religion that will unite our fractious nation…

Candid Conversation with Future AG Bloggers


Vodpod videos no longer available.

I hosted a “candid conversation” between my dad, who is general superintendent of the Assemblies of God, and several young AG ministers. Four years ago, they started FutureAG.blogspot.com, which was controversial at the time. Anyway, I thought the conversation was interesting.

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Tuesday, May 3, 2011


“Welcome to hell, bin Laden.” So said Gov. Mike Huckabee in the opening statement of his Huckabee Report. It’s a common sentiment, but is it a Christian one? James Martin SJ, asks, “What is a Christian Response to Bin Laden’s Death?”  Jennifer Fulwiler writes about “The Shocking Truth That God Loves [loved?] Bin Laden Too.” Jim Wallis argues that “it is never a Christian response to celebrate the death of any human being, even one so given over to the face of evil.” Joe Carter reminds us that “our relief at his death must be tempered by a Christian view of humanity. We must never forget that the evil comes not from the actions of “subhuman vermin” but from the heart of a fallen, sacred yet degraded, human being. If we are to preserve our own humanity we must not forget that our enemy differs from us in degree, not in kind. Like us, they are human, all too human.” Me? I think justice was served by bin Laden’s death. But in the back of my mind, I keep thinking of the scene in Unforgiven where the young man says, “I guess he had it coming.” And Clint Eastwood responds, “We all have it coming, kid.”

Perhaps you’ve seen the following quote from Martin Luther King Jr. on the internet: “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” The first sentence of that quote is fake. The rest is authentic, however, taken from a 1963 book of King’s sermons called Strength to Love.

In re Rob Bell, James K. A. Smith asks, “Can hope be wrong?” Sample: “The “I-can’t-imagine” strategy is fundamentally Feuerbachian: it is a hermeneutic of projection which begins from what I can conceive and then projects “upwards,” as it were, to a conception of God. While this “imagining” might have absorbed some biblical themes of love and mercy, this absorption seems selective. More importantly, the “I-can’t-imagine” argument seems inattentive to how much my imagination is shaped and limited by all kinds of cultural factors and sensibilities–including how I “imagine” the nature of love, etc. The “I-can’t-imagine” argument makes man the measure of God, or at least seems to let the limits and constraints of “my” imagination trump the authority of Scripture and interpretation. I take it that discipleship means submitting even my imagination to the discipline of Scripture. (Indeed, could anything be more countercultural right now than Jonathan Edwards’ radical theocentrism, with all its attendant scandals for our modern sensibilities?)”

“Do Your Political Views Affect Your Religious Beliefs?” Uh, shouldn’t that be the other way around?

Make sure to read David Weiss’s article, “God of the Schizophrenic.” I liked this passage: “My faith in God has always been an important part of my life. I am not a saint. I have prejudices and flaws. But as a Christian, I wish fellow churchgoers would refrain from passing judgment and recommending a fix after two minutes of conversation.” Yep.

Anthony Bradley raises some interesting questions in his article, “Evangelicalism’s Narcissism Epidemic.” Here’s the penultimate sentence: “I hate to sound overly simplistic, but I am beginning to wonder if we undermine the mystery of the Christian life by adding extra tasks, missions, and principles that are not in the Bible and burn people out in the process, making Christianity a burden.”

J.E. Dyer argues, “Don’t Be Satisfied with Tolerance.” Personally, I never was.

Over at Patheos.com, John Fea is writing a four-part series on the Civil War as a war between two “Christian nations.” Part 1: “One Nation, Under God, Indivisible.” Part 2: “God’s Judgment upon the South.” Part 3: “The Confederacy’s Christian Nation.” If this series doesn’t sharpen your sense of the irony of history, then your irony-o-meter is broken.

I’ve been thinking about the Bishop of London’s homily at the royal wedding. I particularly liked this passage: “As the reality of God has faded from so many lives in the West, there has been a corresponding inflation of expectations that personal relations alone will supply meaning and happiness in life. This is to load our partner with too great a burden. We are all incomplete: we all need the love which is secure, rather than oppressive, we need mutual forgiveness, to thrive.” I wonder if he’d mind me borrowing that line every now and then.

Did you see the footage of the church verger cartwheeling down the aisle of Westminster Abbey after the royal wedding? Evidently, cartwheeling in a church after a wedding is a no-no in England, but I thought it rather appropriate. Shouldn’t we celebrate wedding with a little whimsy?

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Psychologists discover “a statistically significant trend toward narcissism and hostility in popular music. As they hypothesized, the words ‘I’ and ‘me’ appear more frequently along with anger-related words, while there’s been a corresponding decline in ‘we’ and ‘us’ and the expression of positive emotions.” I am personally outraged at popular music’s narcissism and anger. Just kidding! Although I wonder what level of narcissism is present in contemporary worship songs.

Al Mohler offers insights about why conservative churches are growing. Sure, evangelical churches are growing and the mainline churches aren’t. But what if the country as a whole is growing at a faster rate than evangelical churches are? That’s the relevant missional problem, it seems to me. I don’t particularly care if evangelical churches are growing because of transfer growth from mainline churches.

How do you contextualize Christianity in majority Muslim countries? One answer is the so-called “insider movement,” which encourages converts to continue to self-identify as Muslims and to attend prayer meetings at the mosque. Is that a good idea?

“What is the key spiritual issue of our time?” Jesus offered a two-fold answer: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Eboo Patel gets the second half right.

Joe Carter asks, “What Would Jesus Drink?” I get the feeling this one’s going to be controversial.

Francis Chan asks, “What would the church look like today if we really stopped taking control of it and let the Holy Spirit lead?” That’s a good question, especially for Pentecostals.

Over at AGTV, my dad explores “Life’s Greatest Question” from Mark 8:29–30.

The Welcome Rise of the Pastor-Scholar. Well, I certainly welcome its rise.

Christ Alone is the first book-length response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins. Extensive excerpts are available online. (My own review of Bell’s book is here.)

The 20th Annual Wheaton Theology Conference looked at the topic, “Global Theology in Evangelical Perspective.” You watch or listen to each of the lectures at the link.

Timothy Dalrymple begins a series on abortion over at Patheos.com. Part 1 looks at Kermit Gosnell and the climate of disregard for life created by the abortion industry.

If you’re into this kind of thing: the religious aspects of the upcoming royal wedding in the United Kingdom.

P.S. This is not really a religious story, but the White House has released President Obama’s certificate of live birth. This should put to rest all conspiracy theories about the president’s birth. Now if someone would just get Andrew Sullivan to shut up about Trig Palin.

Is Rob Bell a Hell-Believing Universalist?


Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2011). $22.99, 224 pages.

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who love questions and those who love answers.

Question-lovers focus on the ambiguity and uncertainty of belief. Reality is bigger and more complex than our theories about it. Consequently, we must be humble in the face of mystery, knowing how much we do not know.

Answer-lovers focus on the clarity and certainty of belief. Reality may slip the grasp of theory at the margins, but theory has a firm grip on reality at the center. So, we must act courageously in the world on the basis of what we do know.

Rob Bell loves questions. His critics love answers. This difference between them—a difference that is both temperamental and methodological—illuminates the controversy surrounding Bell’s new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

Bell asks, “Does God get what God wants?”—namely, “all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:4). He further asks, “Do we get what we want?” A “yes” answer to the first question makes you a universalist, that is, a person who believes that God both desires the salvation of all people and realizes that desire. A “yes” answer to the second question makes you a proponent of hell, that is, a person who believes that we can be separated from God for eternity.

A “yes” answer to both questions makes you Rob Bell, a hell-believing universalist.

If that description of Bell strikes you as an oxymoron, you are probably an answer-lover who longs for clarity and certainty. To you, belief in universalism and belief in hell form an incoherent set. Either/or but not both/and.

But Bell is a question-lover comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. God will get what God wants. And we will get what we want. Either way, love wins. “If we want hell, if we want heaven, they are ours. That’s how love works. It can’t be forced, manipulated, or coerced. It always leaves room for the other to decide. God says yes, we can have what we want, because love wins.”

Read that quote again. If we want heaven, love wins. If we want hell…love wins there too?

In my opinion, Bell can make that statement only by redefining hell. The Christian tradition—Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant—defines hell as the sentence of eternal punishment rendered by God against the unrighteous. One of the source passages for this definition is Matthew 25:31–46, Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats. In that passage, Jesus teaches that he himself will separate the righteous and the unrighteous and render judgment. “Then they [the unrighteous] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Bell thinks the tradition has misinterpreted Jesus’ words in verse 46. There, Jesus contrasts two fates: kolasin aiōnion and zōēn aiōnion. The standard English translation of these two phrases is “eternal punishment” and “eternal life,” respectively, although the words everlasting and forever occasionally appear instead of eternal. According to Bell, the “word kolazo is a term from horticulture. It refers to the pruning and trimming of the branches of a plant so it can flourish.” And aiōnion describes either “a period of time with a beginning and an end” or “a particular intensity of experience that transcends time” (emphasis in original). According to Bell, then “the phrase [kolasin aiōnion] can mean ‘a period of pruning’ or ‘a time of trimming,’ or an intense experience of correction.”

If the tradition defines hell as eternal punishment, then Bell redefines it as temporal or particularly intense pruning. The former is ultimate and retributive. The latter is penultimate and remedial. What Bell says about the interplay of human sin and divine judgment in the Old Testament captures the gist of what he’s saying about hell: “Failure, we see again and again, isn’t final, judgment has a point, and consequences are for correction.”

There are several problems with reasoning about hell in this way: First, Bell commits “the root fallacy” when he thinks the root-meaning of kolazō/kolasin determines its meaning. In the New Testament, kolazō and kolasin are translated as “punish” and “punishment” in the four instances where they are used (Acts 4:21, 2 Pet. 2:9; and Matt. 25:46, 1 John 4:18, respectively). The root-meaning in and of itself cannot determine whether that punishment is remedial (which is what Bell intends by “pruning” or “trimming”) or retributive. Second, the word aiōnion must be translated the same way in both of its instances in Matthew 25:46. If hell is temporal, so is heaven. If hell is an intense experience that transcends time, so is heaven. Obviously, Bell desires to limit the duration of hell, but in doing so, he ends up limiting the duration of heaven at the same time. Third, the problem of citing the Old Testament interplay between human sin and divine judgment is that this interplay is corporate and historical. In other words, it applies to the nation (Israel) or city (Jerusalem), not every citizen or resident. And it applies to that corporate body’s experience in this age, not necessarily in the age to come.

Bell doesn’t draw a sharp distinction between this age and the age to come. He argues—correctly, forcefully, and with great insight—that they overlap in the present age. (He also argues—again, correctly, forcefully, and with great insight—that our eschatology should shape our ethics.) Theologians describe the overlap as inaugurated eschatology. In other words, through his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ inaugurates “the age to come” in the midst of “this age.” In terms of heaven, this means that we can begin to experience “eternal life” right here and right now. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come,” Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “The old has gone, the new is here!” But inaugurated eschatology also applies in terms of hell. Romans 1:18 says, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people.” And 2:5 adds, “because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.” According to these verses, right now, we begin to experience either “eternal life” and “new creation” or “wrath” and “judgment.”

The New Testament teaches inaugurated eschatology, but it also teaches consummated eschatology. If the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ inaugurates, his second coming consummates. Consider, again, Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, which begins this way: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him…” (Matt. 25:31). Or 1 Corinthians 15:51-52: “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” Or Revelation 19:11: “I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war.” In these passages, and in many others, Christ’s return marks a definitive turning point in the relationship between God and his creatures. In the words of the Nicene Creed, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”

For Bell, there does not seem to be a definitive turning point, a crisis moment where destinies are finalized. Hell, especially, is temporal and remedial. How long one spends there depends on how long one resists God’s love. “Hell is our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story.” Bell draws attention to Revelation 21:25, which says of the New Jerusalem: “On no day will its gates ever be shut.” Then he writes: “That’s a small detail, and its’ important we don’t get too hung up on details and specific images because it’s possible to treat something so literally that it becomes less true in the process. But gates, gates are for keeping people in and keeping people out. If the gates are never shut, then people are free to come and go.” Bell sees this as an image of hope. Those who have chosen hell can choose heaven. Logically, though, the image contains a note of despair, for what stops a person who has chosen heaven from choosing hell? Absent the precipitating event of Christ’s second coming and the final judgment, it seems to me that life as Rob Bell portrays it will always be an ongoing struggle between heaven and hell, with no guarantee of a final resolution.

And if that’s the case, in what sense does love actually win?

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P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.