Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Love Rob Wins Bell...

I've finally got around to reading the 'controversial' Rob Bell book 'Love Wins'. Its a very short book. Shorter even than it looks. Because (as I've said before)

Rob Bell

tends to write

large chunks

of the book

like this.

For emphasis, I assume.

But leaving that aside, what are my thoughts on the book?

I'm not sure I need to warn you of spoilers here, but if you read on, please be aware that I will be summarising my take on what Rob Bell says in this book and giving my opinions on his opinions. If you don't want to know what he says until you've read the book yourself, now would be a good point to stop reading.

(Regular readers of this blog will know that my current doubts are questioning things like the historical accuracy of the stories in the bible and whether Jesus really said the things attributed to him, but I shouldn't really bring issues like that into my thoughts on this book, so here I'll comment on this book without, for the most part, questioning most of its underlying assumptions, e.g. that the gospels are reasonably accurate accounts of what Jesus said and did, and who he was.)

Let's take the book chapter by chapter:

Preface: Millions of us
This is a fair point, well made. Christianity has never been a uniform thing, with one set of beliefs shared by all. Virtually all beliefs in any part of contemporary Christianity have been held by some people in generations gone by. There is no such, well defined, 'thing' as Christianity. Also, there are a lot of folk put off by the 'hellfire & brimstone' type preaching, so he's right. This book has an audience.

Chapter 1: What about the flat tire?
Loads of questions. As yet unanswered. Case over-stated. Makes you want to read on, but is a bit irritating. Let's see if the rest of the book lives up to this intro.

Chapter 2: Here is the new there
This is where the book gets interesting. What do we mean by 'heaven'? More importantly, what did Jesus (and the writers of the bible) mean by 'heaven'? Have 2000 years of history shifted our understanding?

Well, yes they have, and Bell makes the case quite convincingly.

Christianity is not about what happens to you after you die.
The gospel is not about what happens to you after you die.
Jesus's teaching is not about what happens to you after you die.
Eternity is not about what happens to you after you die.
Heaven is not about what happens to you after you die.

The bible talks about 'the current age' and 'the age to come'. The latter of which is not necessarily a reference to something post-mortem, but comes when God has established 'the kingdom' on earth. When the earth is renewed.

Basically Bell explains that what the bible means by heaven is not what our contemporary society understands by heaven. All well and good, and ties in with my favourite ever Rob Bell sermon, but what the chapter doesn't really discuss, in any depth, is what actually does happen to the believer or the non-believer after they die.

If the 'age to come' is an earthly age, even a 'heaven on earth' age, then will people die there? What happens then?

In reading this chapter I kind of felt that Bell had done a slight of hand and had ended up answering a different question to the one posed. Or maybe the bible really doesn't answer the 'post-mortem' question?

Yes, in general, I agree with all of his points, 'heaven' can be here not there, but what does happen when we die? That question isn't adequately addressed either here or in the rest of the book!

Chapter 3: Hell
This is the flip side of the previous chapter. Just as heaven can be here and not there, Bell shows that hell is also here, not there. Is there a post-mortem hell? The book doesn't fully answer that.

So hell is a present reality for some and will be a future reality for others, but what about when you die? This question - which seems to be the main selling point of the book - is not adequately addressed. Yes, he asks questions about it, but he doesn't really have a clear message to promote - by which I mean he doesn't say 'this is what might happen to someone when they die', rather he says things along the lines of 'that can't be right, can it?'

So, its thought provoking stuff, but offers little in the way of answers.

Chapter 4: Does God get what God wants?
This is the heart of Bell's reasoning. The bible says that God doesn't want any to perish. The bible says that God is all powerful. Therefore God will ensure that all will be 'saved' - whatever saved means (but we don't really go into that here).

Here I have to question one of the underlying assumptions of the book. The problem I see here is that Bell assumes that the bible has a single, coherent message. Essentially that all parts of the bible speak with the same voice. (I commented on this a couple of weeks ago when Rob Bell was on Unbelievable). The problem - as I see it - is that your whole view of what that one message is is entirely skewed by whatever passages you start with or choose to be your favourites.

It is clear to me (from reading this book) that Bell starts with the Gospel of John and some of the parables in the other gospels. Everything else starts from that foundation. He starts with 'God so loved the world' and builds his theology from that.

If you were to start from other verses or passages, then you'd end up with a completely different set of beliefs, but still think of them as 'bible based'.

I agree, if you start with John and the parable of the prodigal son / loving father, then you will inevitably end up with a God who cannot condemn anyone to hell. But that isn't the only picture painted in the bible and there is no clear way that I can see of choosing which of the possibilities is 'right', if indeed any of them are.

Chapter 5: Dying to live
This is where the book loses the plot. He doesn't quite say this, but gets fairly close to saying that Jesus death and resurrection are just another death and rebirth motif, like leaves falling off trees in the autumn and coming back in Spring. Its like 'everything dies and everything is reborn, and Jesus is just one of those things', which isn't exactly the case. This is where some people will have serious issues with Mr Bell. But not as much as in the next chapter.

Chapter 6: There are rocks everywhere
This is the chapter where Bell basically says that some people can 'be saved' and 'come to God' without knowing about Jesus. Yes, he says, Jesus is the only mediator between God and man, but anyone, with any experience of the divine, in whatever religious context, is reaching God through Jesus, even if they don't know it. He actually does go as far as to give the cliche example of the mountain with many paths to the top.

Sorry Rob, but this isn't in the bible. No matter how hard you try, you won't find it there.

Now it may be that I am more inclined to agree with this kind of reasoning than I used to be, but this is where both Rob Bell and I diverge from what the bible says. Its just that I realise that and he apparently doesn't.

Chapter 7: The good news is better than that
Here Rob Bell pads out the prodigal son / loving father parable to the length of a chapter. For the prodigal son, he thought he could return as a servant, but the good news is better than that. For the older brother, he thought he was restricted by the Father, but everything the Father had was his, the good news was better than that. And so on.

If God is love now and shows his love to you now, will he suddenly change character, and his attitude to you at the moment of your death? Probably not. The good news is probably better than that.

This feels like an unnecessary chapter. Bell has already made all of his points, but the book needs to be a bit longer, so he's added a couple of chapters. More of the same, really.

Chapter 8: The end is here
So we get to the end. What is Bell's final message? Well, its more or less 'live life like each day could be your last'. In the end, his main question is not what happens after you die, but he is much more interested in what you do before you die.

He doesn't really say this, but I think he's saying that we should live life right now, and leave whatever happens in the future (both pre- and post-mortem) in the hands of a loving God.

And that's it. A book that doesn't really answer the question it apparently set out to answer, but does a bit of slight of hand and answers a few different ones. In ways that will make (and already has made) a lot of conservative Christians quite annoyed. But this book isn't about answering the questions, its about making the reader think about the questions and, hopefully, reach their own answers.

Some will read this book and will simply reject what it says.

Some will read this book and think 'so what?'

But some will read this book and it will give them hope for the future and a better picture of a loving God. Those people are who Rob Bell wrote his book for. I hope many of them find it.

In the time since 'Love Wins' has come out, a number of the outraged conservative types have written books in response. Books like: "Erasing Hell: What God Said about Eternity, and the Things We Made Up" by Francis Chan & Preston Sprinkle (I hope he doesn't preach a message of baptism by total immersion!) and "God Wins: Heaven, Hell, and Why the Good News Is Better than Love Wins" by Mark Galli & Randy Alcorn. I have no plans to read any of these. Sigh.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Belief and knowledge

I've touched on this subject before, but I'm back at it from a different point of view. What can we claim to have 'knowledge' about and what is only 'belief'?

The distinction I'm making is that I think knowledge is the subset of beliefs which can be validated by experience or logical deduction, whereas non-knowledge beliefs are those which is is not (currently) possible to validate or verify.

Unfortunately, for the Christian, I think that the balance is something kind of like this:

That is, the stuff we can know about God by experience is heavily dominated by the stuff that is belief by deduction (and our logic may be wrong, of course) and belief by doctrine (i.e. what comes directly from the Bible or what we're taught in Church, but which is impossible to test).

For example, I think that it is possible to know that:

Prayers are sometimes answered.

And from that, with some piled up experience we can deduce that:

God (sometimes) answers prayer.

But to go beyond that and say that the God who answered your prayer is the same God who created the world, is to go into the unverifiable realm of doctrine.

As I see it, only things that relate to the present can be experienced and hence verified, anything relating to the past (creation, events in biblical times, etc.) is mere belief, as is anything relating to the future, in particular anything relating to the 'age to come' (heaven, hell, eternal life, etc.).

Importantly, I don't see any way in which experiences in the present can validate beliefs about the past or the future, although Christianity (and presumably other faiths) more or less relies upon the assumption that the one can validate the other. The common reasoning seems to go like this: Christianity asserts N things, you can have experiences that validate M of them (where M << N), but because M are validated, then we can assume that the remaining N-M assertions are also validated. Sorry, I just can't accept that anymore.

Often we insert false correlations into our deductions. Such as we make the logical jump from:

God speaks to me through the bible


The bible must be the Word of God.

But I'm not sure that logically follows. Maybe God speaks to you through the bible simply because that's the book through which you expect him to talk. Maybe he could speak through the morning newspaper, but you're not looking for guidance there, so its easier to speak through the place you're looking in.

I just read through the 'statement of faith' of the church that I attend. Well over 90% of the statements in it fall into the (unverifiable) belief category, and the few remaining statements are all deductions (relating to the Holy Spirit) which may be partially tested based on experience.

As you can no doubt tell, I'm having a big problem at the moment justifying (to myself) making life choices that are based entirely on unjustified and untestable doctrine. Especially when some of the doctrinal assertions appear to be flawed or simply false. If some are false, my confidence in the others is greatly diminished.

I'd like to have a reasonable, rational faith. But it seems to me that in order to get there I need to jettison over 90% of my beliefs and put them into the 'I simply don't know' category.

Did God create the world: I simply don't know...
Is there only one God: I simply don't know...
Was Jesus born of a virgin: I simply don't know...
Was Jesus fully man and fully God: I simply don't know...
Did he have a bodily resurrection: I simply don't know...
Is there life after death: I simply don't know...
Is Christianity the only path to God: I simply don't know...
and so on.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Truth and filters

Continuing from my previous thought...

Is Christianity the 'truth' or is it a lens/filter through which we see the 'truth'?

How can we discern the difference?

Of course, here I am assuming that there is something which is reasonable to call 'truth'. Basically what I'm aiming for here is some way of assessing to what extent our presuppositions and cultural filters modify the way we perceive our interactions with (what, for lack of a better, all-encompassing phrase, I will call) the supernatural realm. Of course, this presupposes a supernatural realm.

But let's start with that supposition, that the supernatural realm is a reality and that there is at least one god or supernatural being within it, and that we are able to interact with it/him somehow.

Is Christianity the best way of accessing the supernatural realm? Is it the only way of getting access to it? Does the Christian world-view in any way filter or distort the way we perceive the supernatural realm? And, most importantly, is it possible to know the answer to any of these questions without actually trying out alternative filters?

Christianity makes a very strong, exclusive claim: "[Jesus is] the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except by [Jesus]". The claim is not only that Christianity is the best way to access the supernatural god, but it is the only way. All other ways lead elsewhere. Or, to use my current imagery, no other filters or lenses allow us to see the truth.

There's a couple of parables which suggest that once you have found 'the truth' you should do anything to keep hold of it - the parables of the pearl of great price and the treasure buried in the field. But even if you have found treasure in a field, how do you know there's not more treasure buried in a different field? I suppose one pot of buried treasure aught to be enough for anyone, but I think I'm losing the track here, the point is, even though you've found something, how can you know that it is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth unless you keep looking in other places?

Maybe there's other sets of presuppositions that actually give a clearer picture of the truth?

Unless you consider the other viewpoints, you can never see just how skewed a picture of reality your own viewpoint actually gives...

What I'm wondering is this, does our Christian worldview completely colour our understanding of our interactions with the spiritual realm? We see all our interactions through a 'trinitarian' lens (for example), so we see God the Spirit at work in certain events. But maybe if you view the exact same interactions through a Hindu filter, you see Vishnu (or whatever) at work. Maybe we all just interpret events through our cultural filters and interpret meaning into them which validates our presuppositions.

Can we actually know God? Or do our presuppositions completely distort his reality?