Mosaic of the Nativity (Jane Kenyon)

Mosaic of the Nativity: Serbia, Winter 1993 (from “The Writer’s Almanac”)
Jane Kenyon

On the domed ceiling God
is thinking:
I made them my joy,
and everything else I created
I made to bless them.
But see what they do!
I know their hearts
and arguments:

“We’re descended from
Cain. Evil is nothing new,
so what does it matter now
if we shell the infirmary,
and the well where the fearful
and rash alike must
come for water?”

God thinks Mary into being.
Suspended at the apogee
of the golden dome,
she curls in a brown pod,
and inside her mind
of Christ, cloaked in blood,
lodges and begins to grow.

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Final Thoughts on Love Wins

I am glad that Rob Bell wrote Love Wins and believe the people of God would be well served if they took the time to critically read, think and dialogue about its content. In our community of faith, twenty of us met together over a five week period to do exactly that. The process strengthened my faith and convictions and my guess is that most of the participants would agree that vigorous conversation about what we believe and the implications that flow from those beliefs is a critical and necessary element for spiritual growth. If you haven’t gathered with others to wrestle with your faith lately, I strongly encourage you to find a few companions and dig in; it will be time well spent.

This post will be my last on Love Wins and I want to share some final thoughts and reflections. Much of what Rob wrote in this book resonates deeply with me; some of it deeply troubles me. With these five concluding thoughts, I will touch on points of agreement and disagreement and invite you to do the same. What can you affirm from Love Wins and how does this inform your faith? Where has Rob missed the mark and strayed from a historic understanding of the Christian faith?

1) Realized Eschatology:  I love Rob’s emphasis on heaven and hell as both future states and current realities. The idea that God is dragging the future into the present is extremely compelling to me. I want to live NOW in a way that is consistent with the way things will be THEN when God’s kingdom comes in its fullness. Rob writes:”Our eschatology shapes our ethics. Eschatology is about last things. Ethics are about how you live. What you believe about the future shapes, informs, and determines how you live now” (46).

Love Wins also reminds me that hell is real and that my self-centered decisions, attitudes, words, actions and behaviors contribute to a creating a hell-like reality here on earth now. “There are individual hells and communal, society-wide hells and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously. There is hell now and hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously” (79).

How seriously do you take heaven and hell – both here and now and then and there? And how do you live differently because of these realities?

2) Humility: In the preface to Love Wins, Rob states that the story of Jesus has been hijacked by other stories. Some of this has to do with getting our theology right, but much of it has to do with the arrogance of some Christ followers. As we seek to live as light and salt in the world today, all of us would do well to read and reflect upon Rob’s comments on pages 158-160:

  • People come to Jesus in different ways;
  • None of us have cornered the market on Jesus;
  • It is our responsibility to be extremely careful about making negative, decisive, lasting judgements abut people’s eternal destinies.

3) The Centrality of Jesus: I have read and heard people say that Rob believes there are ways to God apart from Jesus. I simply don’t see that in Love Wins. Rob is extremely Christo-centric. He writes:

“John remembers Jesus saying, ‘I am the Way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6). This is as wide and expansive claim as a person can make. What he doesn’t say is how, when or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and restore the world is happening through him.”(154)

I think Rob is pretty clear about one thing: if anything happens to anyone in this life and the life to come, it happens because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

Now I also strongly disagree with something Rob declares in the above statement. I believe that both Jesus and the other New Testament writers do have much to say about the mechanism of the cross and how people come to the Father through Jesus. Our responsibility is to learn as much as we can about what the New Testament teaches in regard to this and and faithfully, creatively and compellingly share this with others.

4) The Opportunity to Choose: Love Wins is all about choice. God’s love includes the freedom for humans to choice to either respond or reject God’s love. I get that. But one of my biggest points of departure from Rob’s teaching is his conviction that there will be post-mortem opportunities to have our hearts melted by God’s love. He suggest that people will have eternal opportunities to be won over by God’s love.

If, in the afterlife, I discover this to be true, I would greatly rejoice. However in my option, the clear teaching of Scripture is that this one life is all we have to respond to God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. This is not only the clear teaching of Scripture, but also the overwhelming position of the Church for two thousand years of church history. Rob’s position on this is certainly outside mainstream Christian teaching.

5) Love Wins: I believe that God’s love indeed does win. However, my understanding of love’s victory is quite different than found in Love Wins.

Rob sets up, what I believe, to be a false argument when he raises the question: “does God become somebody totally different the moment you die? (174) I would ask, does saying “God is love” force us to negate any of the other attributes of God, for example, God’s holiness, justice or even God’s wrath?

I was greatly privileged to study theology with Stan Grentz during my doctoral studies at Northern Seminary in Chicago. His statement from Theology for the Community of God, brilliantly captures my understanding of the way in which God’s love wins:

“Rather than being incompatible with God’s love, the possibility of hell arises from a rigorous understanding of the nature of the God who is love. God is an eternal lover. In keeping with God’s own nature, he loves his creation eternally, and he desires that humans respond to his love by enjoying unending fellowship with him. We dare not confuse God’s love with sentimentality. As the great lover, God is also the avengeing protector of the love relationship. Consequently, God’s love has a dark side. Those who spurn or seek to destroy the holy relationship God desires to enjoy with creation experience the divine love as protective jealousy or wrath. Because God is eternal, our experience of God’s love – whether as fellowship or wrath – is also eternal. Just as the righteous enjoy unending community with God, so also those who set themelves in oppostion to God’s love expereince his holy love eternally. For them however, this experience is hell.” (Theology for the Community of God, 641-642)

I appreciate the conversations I have had with many of you over the past couple of months around Love Wins. Remember, theology does matter. May you think deeply about the faith and how you express that faith in your everyday, ordinary life and may you always do so in love – because, sisters and brother, in the end, love wins!

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The Good News is Better Than That – More Thoughts on Love Wins

The last major section of  Love Wins is entitled “The Good News is Better Than That” and in this chapter Rob Bell explores the nature and character of God. Before you read this rest of this post, take a moment and engage in this brief exercise. Fill in the blank:

God is ________ and ________.

Work to select two words that might seemingly be in tension. For example, Jesus is both the Lamb of God and Lion of the tribe of Judah.

Question: how words did you select to fill in the blanks?

When we consider the nature and character of God, are we willing to hold together attributes that at first glance may seem to be, at  in tension or perhaps even in conflict with each other?

For example, in considering the nature of God and the realities of heaven and hell, Rob raises this point of contention:

“Loving one moment, vicious the next. Kind and compassionate, only to become cruel and relentless in the blink of an eye. Does God become somebody totally different the moment you die? That kind of God is simply devastating. Psychologically crushing. We can’t bear it. No one can” (174).

Is God both loving and vicious? Is God kind and cruel? Is God compassionate and relentless?

Indeed, no one could bear up under that understating and framework of God. But to borrow Rob’s words, I would say, the good news is better than that, because no one need bear up under this conception of God because God’s nature and character is consistent in this life and in the life to come as well – God is love!

Question: Does affirming that “God is love” force us to negate, erase or trump any of God’s other attributes?

Rob focuses on Jesus’ parable about the Father and Two Sons (Luke 15) to help readers wrestle with the nature and character of God. Rob rightly points to the fact that they are a number of stories contained in the larger Story. Both the younger son and the older son have created their own stories about themselves and how they relate to their father. The big question for Rob is this: will they continue to live in their own distorted stories (“I’ve blown it so badly that I’m not worthy to be called a son” or “I’ve slaved for you all these years and yet you never gave me even a goat to celebrate”) or will they trust the father’s story of unconditional love and acceptance?

While Rob brings fresh insight into this parable, he also misses a significant point in his retelling of the stories. While the father loves both sons unconditionally, in only one of the stories do we find remorse, confession, and repentance. Manifest in the younger son, these qualities enable him to experience the love and grace of his father. Apart from this turning, it is impossible to trust in the father’s story.

“Hell is our refusal to trust in God’s retelling of our story…Hell is refusing to trust and refusing to trust is often rooted in a distorted view of God” (170, 175).

Rob once again centers on the role of human choice and the role our choices play in determining whether we experience heaven or hell.  He also writes: we do ourselves great harm when we confuse the very essence of God, which is love, with the very real consequences of rejecting and resisting that love, which creates what we call hell” (177). Once again, Rob disconnects God from hell and posits the idea that humans actually create hell. I think Rob misses the mark on this.

As I conclude this post, let me make mention of one of the strengths of this chapter. Rob writes passionately about the distinction between entrance and enjoyment in the telling and loving of the  gospel story.

“So when the gospel is diminished to a question of whether or not a person will “get into heaven” that reduces the good news to a ticket, a way to get past the bouncer and into the club. The good news is better than that” (178-179).

Indeed!

Question: is your telling of the Gospel themed more around entrance or enjoyment and what are the implications of this?

Look for one more post on Love Wins; in it, I will share my take aways from the book.

Stay connected…

 

There Are Rocks Everywhere – More Thoughts on Love Wins

Chapter Six of Love Wins, “There Are Rocks Everywhere” is perhaps the richest and also the most controversial chapter in the book. One critique I have heard from people is the suggestion that Rob believes there are ways other than Jesus to get to God.  I simply do not see this position in Love Wins; in fact, I find Rob to be extremely Jesus-centric. My simple summary is that if anything good happens, in this life or the life, to anyone, it is all because of Jesus (good Steve Fee song as well). Here are two key statements from this chapter that speak of the primacy of Jesus:

“John remembers Jesus saying, ‘I am the Way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6). This is as wide and expansive claim as a person can make. What he doesn’t say is how, when or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and restore the world is happening through him.” (154)

“…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” (155)

Now as thrilled as I am about the centrality of Jesus for Rob, I also recognize that these statements are doubled edged swords. Really Rob, Jesus (and the rest of the New Testament authors) didn’t say anything about how people get to God through him? Did you forget about all the atonement theory stuff from the previous chapter? And did Jesus really say he is saving everyone? What about Jesus’ statement in Matthew 7: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it?” Would it be more accurate to declare that Jesus did say he was saving everyone that is actually saved?

The title of this chapter, “There Are Rocks Everywhere” is a reference to the texts in Exodus 17 and 1 Corinthians 10 that speak of the rock by which God provided water for the Israelites in the wilderness. Rob uses these texts to delve into the idea of the presence of Jesus in the world. After looking at these texts he concludes:

“According to Paul, Jesus was there. Without anyone using his name. Without anybody saying it was him. Without anybody acknowledging just what – or, more precisely, who – it was. Paul’s interpretation that Christ was present in the Exodus raises the question: where else has Christ been present? When else? With who else? How else? Paul finds Jesus there, in that rock, because Paul finds Jesus everywhere.” (144)

How is Jesus present in the world? While the belief that God is omnipresent is central to orthodox Christianity, I feel that Rob confuses omnipresence with saving presence. As well, as Scot McKnight points out, Rob confuses typology for ontology.

Questions: What implications does this chapter have for mission and evangelism in the world today? How important is it to help people “name” Jesus? And how do we help people “name” the presence of Jesus that is already in their lives?

Let me make note of one other idea Rob raises in this chapter involving the presence of Jesus. There is a great deal of discussion about Christ being the mystery of God. This is one of the strengths of the chapter as it invites us to consider not only what we an and do know about God’s presence in Christ, but to also live by faith in what we do not yet fully understand and know about God’s presence in Christ.

I love this statement about the church and how people of faith organize themselves around the mystery that is Jesus:

“One of the many things people in a church do, then is name, honor and orient themselves around this mystery. A church is a community of people who enact specific rituals and create specific experiences to keep this word alive in their own hearts, a gathering of believers who help provide language and symbols and experiences for this mystery” (156).

Question: How does your faith community name, honor and orient itself around Jesus? How do you live into not only what is known about Jesus, but also the mystery of Jesus?

Stay connected…

Dying to Live – More Thoughts on Love Wins

It’s Good Friday, an appropriate day to reflect upon Rob Bell’s exploration of the cross found in chapter 5 of Love Wins. Rob writes:

“What happened on the cross is like…
a defendant going free,
a relationship being reconciled,
something lost being redeemed,
a battle being won,
a final sacrifice being offered,
so that no one ever has to offer another one again,
an enemy being loved” (128).

I found this to be one of the strongest chapters in Love Wins.  Rob works hard to articulate a fully orbed understanding of what Jesus’ death on the cross actually accomplished. His sketch of the various New Testament understandings of the cross are varied and rich. In my experience most Christians have an extremely limited understanding of the Cross. Ask someone the question, “what happened at the cross?” and you will most likely receive an answer something like, “Jesus died for my sins” – true, but perhaps not true enough.

Here are the New Testament images of the cross that Rob draws upon in this chapter:

  • sacrifice which comes from the religious sphere
  • reconciliation which is drawn form the relational sphere
  • justification which emanates form the legal sphere
  • redemption which flows from the economic sphere
  • victory which is derived from the military sphere
  • example which is taken from the moral/ethical sphere

Let me note that this is not original material from Rob; he draws this framework from the work of Mark Baker’s, Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross, a book I would highly recommend.

Here is a quote, question and two concerns that I would love to engage in some dialogue:

Quote: “The point, then, isn’t to narrow it to one particular metaphor, image, explanation, or mechanism. To elevate one over the others, to insist that there’s a correct or right one, is to miss the brilliant, creative work these first Christians were doing when they used these images and metaphors. They were reading their world, looking for ways to communicate this epic event in ways their listeners could grasp.’ (129)

Question: how must space and latitude do we as 21st century followers of Jesus have in exploring fresh expressions, images and metaphors to describe the work of Jesus on the cross? What metaphors from our world have you used to effectively communicate the realities of the cross?

Concerns:

1) While Rob goes to great lengths to describe what happened at the cross, he doesn’t have much to say about why the cross had to happen. Unfortunately, the s-word (sin) is only used once in the entire chapter and that reference is a flippiant one at that.  The cross in my mind doesn’t make much sense unless we understand the depthof human deparvity, alienation and spearation from God that results form our sin.

2) Rob wraps his understanding of the cross (death) and the resurrection (life) into an elemental perspective and view of the universe. While there is something profound about declaring  “very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24-25) on Earth Day 2011, the life, death and resurrection certainly transcends an elemental understating of the universe that God has created. Consider Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a human being. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But in this order: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. (1 Corinthians 15:20-23)

Isn’t God doing something new fresh and paradigmatic in the cross and resurrection? In my mind the spiritual implications of the life, death and resurrection infinitely transcend the elemental life-cycle of the seasons of the year or a field of wheat.

In spite of these concerns, on this Good Friday may you take to heart Rob’s words regarding the personal implications of the death and resurrection of Jesus:

“When we say yes to God, when we open ourselves to Jesus’s living, giving act on the cross, we enter into a way of life. he is the source, the strength, the example and assurance that this pattern of death and rebirth is the way into the only kind of life that actually sustains and inspires” (136).

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