10 things we can learn from one of Christianity’s biggest controversies.
Finally someone has written what I think is the ultimate wrap up of the Rob Bell “Love Wins” controversy. Not surprised that it is biblical scholar, best-selling author, award-winning blogger, and friend, Scott McKnight. Enjoy!
Everyone knew in advance that Rob Bell’s next book, Love Wins, would surely raise eyebrows and create some debate. But no one, including the author and his agent, expected what did happen. From the momentJustin Taylor uttered that opening warning and John Piper tweeted “Farewell Rob Bell” until many of us had a week or two to read it, Rob Bell’s book was at the forefront of American Christianity’s sensational tabloids. I’ve never seen anything like it, and it may well be a one-of-a-kind brouhaha for the next generation or two.
But what can we learn from what happened? I want to suggest we can learn 10 lessons.
First, social media is where controversial ideas will be both explored and judged. We no longer read books patiently, type out letters to denominational offices, find common agreements and then summon the Christian leader behind closed doors to ask questions and sort out concerns. It’s all public, it’s all immediate and everyone weighs in because social media is about as radical a form of democracy as exists. To be sure, this means the uninformed heavy-handed can weigh in as easily as the patient, careful, critical and balanced reader. But social media is not going away, so we should realize what we are getting into before we walk into the room.
Second, megachurch pastors are being watched closely. “Who says what” has always mattered. But because of social media, the who-says-what takes on new significance: megachurch pastors—and this applies to Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Andy Stanley and Rob Bell—are being watched, and their critics only need one off-line comment to stir into action. John Piper has been hammered for some of his comments, Bill Hybels has weathered criticism and Rob Bell is in the same world. Robin Parry, a skilled and careful scholar, wrote a book called The Evangelical Universalist. He was an editor at an evangelical publishing house. His book barely drew attention, but when Rob Bell said even less than Parry, Bell was scorched by many.
Third, tribalism pervades the American religious scene…
An assortment of nine Catholic Bishops scored nine covers (the last in 1966), and of course eight Popes have worn the red frame more thirty-three times. Throw in some stray renewal movements, missionaries, reformers, etc., and the total number of pastoral cover stories grows to about fifty in eighty-eight years.
In case you’re keeping score, that’s about 1% of the nearly 5,000 Time cover stories in history, so we are talking about some very elite pastoral company. I mean, even Jesus has made only 18 cover stories (so far), and he’s often had to share them with his Mom!
Now Rob Bell has done it! Time’s Holy Week edition (dated 4/25) is on news stands everywhere: complete with a cover story entitled, “What if There’s No Hell? A Popular pastors best-selling book has stirred fierce debate about sin, salvation and judgment.” Okay, like a pastoral Roger Maris, Bell has done it with an asterisk, because neither his NAME nor his PHOTO make the cover. Still, it is quite a fete.
You would think that evangelicals would be dancing with glee (the emotion, not the television show) over this latest public relations coup.
Still, there are at least a few cooler heads who are contributing to a more nuanced conversation. Here are three new contributions to the dialogue One more “pro”, one more “con,” and a third more “mixed,” that might help you make up your own mind on the issues… but please don’t decide until after you read the book!
…The standard Christian view of salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is summed up in the Gospel of John, which promises “eternal life” to “whosoever believeth in Him.” Traditionally, the key is the acknowledgment that Jesus is the Son of God, who, in the words of the ancient creed, “for us and for our salvation came down from heaven … and was made man.” In the Evangelical ethos, one either accepts this and goes to heaven or refuses and goes to hell.
Bell, a tall, 40-year-old son of a Michigan federal judge, begs to differ. He suggests that the redemptive work of Jesus may be universal — meaning that, as his book’s subtitle puts it, “every person who ever lived” could have a place in heaven, whatever that turns out to be.
Such a simple premise, but with Easter at hand, this slim, lively book has ignited a new holy war in Christian circles and beyond. When word of Love Wins reached the Internet, one conservative Evangelical pastor, John Piper, tweeted, “Farewell Rob Bell,” unilaterally attempting to evict Bell from the Evangelical community. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, says Bell’s book is “theologically disastrous. Any of us should be concerned when a matter of theological importance is played with in a subversive way.” In North Carolina, a young pastor was fired by his church for endorsing the book.
The traditionalist reaction is understandable, for Bell’s arguments about heaven and hell raise doubts about the core of the Evangelical worldview, changing the common understanding of salvation so much that Christianity becomes more of an ethical habit of mind than a faith based on divine revelation. “When you adopt universalism and erase the distinction between the church and the world,” says Mohler, “then you don’t need the church, and you don’t need Christ, and you don’t need the cross. This is the tragedy of nonjudgmental mainline liberalism, and it’s Rob Bell’s tragedy in this book too.”
Particularly galling to conservative Christian critics is that Love Wins is not an attack from outside the walls of the Evangelical city but a mutiny from within — a rebellion led by a charismatic, popular and savvy pastor with a following. Is Bell’s Christianity — less judgmental, more fluid, open to questioning the most ancient of assumptions — on an inexorable rise? “I have long wondered if there is a massive shift coming in what it means to be a Christian,” Bell says. “Something new is in the air.”
5) Today we will examine what Rob Bell says about hell.
Chapter 3 in his book is surely one of the most controversial chapters and that means I will have to sketch what he says before I offer my own critique and raise some questions for conversation. Up to this point Bell’s book has been at best mildly controversial; from this point on his controversial points come to the surface.
Bell makes five points about hell, organized by how the Bible talks about hell. First, the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament) where we find the term Sheol [pit, underworld, etc]. “The Hebrew commentary on what happens after a person dies isn’t very articulated or defined … a bit vague and ‘underworldly’” (67).
Second, Gehenna. He opts for the flippant hell = garbage dump, yes I believe in hell, I believe my garbage goes somewhere. Gehenna is the “town garbage pile.” [Rob’s just wrong here and I’ll get to that below. Also, rule #1 about hell: never be flippant.] Tartarus and Hades. Both are Greek words for the underworld, more or less Jewish substitutes for Sheol.“And that’s it.”
6) Rob Bell is not a universalist, and he can’t be if he is as committed to freedom as he says. Now to explain…
The chapter is titled and begins with this question: Does God get what God wants? Of course, this all depends on what “wants” means, and Rob narrows God’s “wants” to his desire, found in 1 Timothy 2:3-4: “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”Others might define God’s “wants” in ways that permit other factors, but this is Rob’s book and this is what he focuses on. He asks some almost facetious questions – like “How great is God?” – meaning is God great if he doesn’t get what he wants and what he wants is the salvation of all. By Rob’s own logic, though, and this needs to be listened to, as this chapter unfolds God doesn’t necessarily get what he “wants”.
Bell opens up the universalism question here, which means that all humans — every last one of them in the past, present and future — will in the end be saved. He quotes passages in the Bible that have both “gospel going to all people” and reconciliation of all themes. The verses can’t be denied. Colossians 1 can’t be ignored: “and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” But that’s not the end for Rob Bell in this chapter…
…As Bell has it, one job of the community that might rightly be called “church” is that of a clarifying, lyricizing, parabling stewardship concerning the mystery of God’s redeeming presence in the world. In this sense, the church names the people who “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.”[ii]
In my own witnessing work, I was stuck (or in danger of being stuck) in what Bell terms “an entrance understanding of the gospel” which views it “primarily in terms of entrance rather than joyous participation.”[iii] To remain there is to hold to and, more tragically, embody that “cheap view of the world” that is born of “a cheap view of God.” While there is for some, perhaps inevitably, a developmental stage of this kind in religious formation, it can become what Bell deems “a shriveled imagination.” He observes that “An entrance understanding of the gospel rarely creates good art. Or innovation.”
…against Bell’s critics who could perhaps be forgiven a little for confusing Bell’s advertising for his text, it seems to me that Love Wins is committed to sustaining, clarifying and elaborating upon this pinch. As Bell has it, the question of life’s meaning, its lasting significance, is at the heart of Jesus’ famous exchange with the rich young ruler. How does one “enter life?” Keep the commandments. Bell focuses the conversation: “Another way of saying ‘life in the age to come’ in Jesus’s day was to say ‘eternal life.’ In Hebrew the phrase is olam habah….What must I do to inherit olam habah?…This age, and the one to come, the one after this one.”[iv] Or as he puts it in what I hope might prove to be the book’s most popular soundbite, “Here is the new there.”[v]
Judgment, the decision to be made, the alive and signaling, evangelical pinch isn’t to be deferred. It’s now. Or as Modest Mouse famously puts it, “If you wasted this life, why wouldn’t you waste the afterlife?” Life in the age to come is as inescapably social and ethically laden as this one, only moreso. With Jesus’ counsel to the young man to sell everything he has and give to the poor, we’re given a vision of here and there which is anything but neutral (economically, politically, what have you). “Heaven also confronts. Heaven, we learn, has teeth, flames, edges, and sharp points. What Jesus is insisting with the rich man is that certain things will not survive in the age to come.”[vi]
Prolific writer-producer Brian Bird is co-founder of Believe Pictures(with Michael Landon, Jr.) with the mission of developing and producing “high quality, entertaining, and life-and-faith-affirming, films and television depicting positive images and compelling moral stories.” Bird and Landon wrote and produced two novel inspired films for Fox and they are currently writing and/or producing three films: When Calls the Heart, Deep in the Heart, and The Shunning (Premiering this Saturday, April 16, on the Hallmark Channel at 9pm/8pm Central).
Brian also writing a separate screenplay for the Fox Searchlight film, Captive, the true story of Ashley Smith and the Atlanta hostage crisis from 2005. He will also produce the film along with Ken Wales and Ralph Winter.
Previously, Bird served as Co-Executive Producer and senior writer for four seasons on the series Touched By An Angeland his TV writing/producing credits include more than 250 episodes of Touched By an Angel, Evening Shade, Step by Step, and The Family Man, as well as numerous TV and feature films. His script Call Me Claus was the highest rated cable film of 2002. Brian also wrote and co-produced Tri-Star’s 2009 film Not Easily Broken.
On a more personal note, I have met few Hollywood filmmakers with as great a commitment to personal mentoring as Brian. As an official mentor in the Act One program and the Visual Story Network, as well as an unofficial mentor throughout the industry, Brian has distinguished himself in his willingness to invest in the lives of young writers and producers.
In celebration of the premier of The Shunning this Saturday (Hallmark, 9pm/ 8pm CDT), I asked Brian a few questions about the film, about the greatest influencers in his life, and about origin of his incredible commitment to mentoring.
Interview with Writer-Producer Brian Bird
GDS: What excites you most about the film?
Brian Bird: One reason is because I think we have very faithfully recreated both the world of the Amish, and one of Beverly Lewis‘ most important novels.
GDS: Do you think people will relate to a film set in such an “other” world?
BB: Absolutely, even though the storytelling is set among the Amish, I think it’s a very universal tale that all families can relate to because it deals with how we try to pass along our values to our children, and how they have to choose the values they are going to live with.
GDS: Any personal stake in the film?
BB: Well, The Shunning makes a very important statement about the theme of adoption — which is very significant to me as an adoptive father of two daughters. That statement is this: love is thicker than blood when it comes to our family relationships.
GDS: Let’s talk about people who have influenced who you are and your career as a filmmaker. First, an easy one, what films have influenced you most?
BB: Let’s see, Horton Foote (To Kill a Mockingbird)—whose screenplays taught me that plot and character are intertwined and always default to character if you have a choice. William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)—whose body of work as a screenwriter taught me that you have to know the rules in order to break them.
Also, Robert Bolt (A Man for All Seasons)—whose screenplay taught me about striving to be epic in my writing. And then there’s Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Identity series)—whose screenplays taught me to strive to be taut in my writing.
GDS: Any other kinds of writers influence you?
BB: Well, C.S. Lewis was formidable in shaping my worldview, and Francis Schaeffer formidable in shaping my ideas about art and its influence on culture. Oh, and also Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, who helped me understand that great literature should take the reader’s breath away. Of course, there is also the Bible, which has been an uber-influencer for me.
GDS: Any others?
BB: I’ve had some very significant mentors.
GDS: Like who?
BB: Well, in no particular order, there is Ted Smythe, Mass Media Professor Cal State University, Fullerton, who told me not to be afraid of ideas outside my worldview because in the marketplace of ideas, truth always rises to the top.
Don Ingalls, legendary TV writer-producer, great-uncle, who gave me my first network TV writing assignment and told me nepotism can open a door, but skills have to keep it open.
Morgan Freeman, legendary actor who directed my first feature film (Bopha), told me that there is only one race of people — the human race — and two kinds of people: good ones and bad ones.
Rick Warren, my pastor, who told me not to preach in my writing, but just to ask great questions.
GDS: Did any of them influence how you approached The Shunning?
BB: (Laughs) All of them, but maybe especially Michael Warren, because of what I just mentioned. When he gave me one of my first opportunities in show business he made me promise to leave the door open for others behind me.
GDS: How did you do that in The Shunning?
BB: I chose to give a newer, younger writer an opportunity to write this film rather than writing it myself. We hired Chris Easterly—a graduate of Act One’s screenwriting program who had served faithfully as a writer’s assistant on Touched By An Angel—to write the teleplay for this film, and he knocked it out of the park.
GDS: Isn’t that taking quite a risk on behalf of a younger “unproven” writer?
BB: It wasn’t charity on our part. We needed somebody with some real writing chops to do this work, and Chris showed himself approved. I left the door open for a very gifted young man in the same way Michael Warren left the door open for me in 1990.
GDS: So you’re leaving a legacy?
BB: That is certainly my intention. And I know that Chris will do the same thing for somebody else when he comes into his Showbiz kingdom.
Don’t miss The Shunning: Saturday (April 16): The Hallmark Channel at 9pm (8pm Central).
Follow Brian: On his blog: BrianBird.net: The Art of Story, The Craft of Screenwriting and More, or on Twitter: @brbird.
Other Two Handed Warrior TV Writer and Filmmakers:
Sorry it took so long to reply. I was in North Carolina this past week on the set of a movie I wrote for the Hallmark Channel. It’s a very thought-provoking article and it was a pleasure to read. Thanks for asking me to weigh in! My thoughts are below:
To me, one of the most interesting ideas your article raises is the concept of intentionality. Edwards and Whitefield actively promoted their own celebrity. As you note about Edwards, “Without him providing the story, there is no story, and therefore, no celebrity.” These men were intentional about creating and using their celebrity for the glory of God, and their actions mattered.
This seems counterintuitive to a traditional understanding of the Christian call to deny one’s self. But your examination of Edwards and Whitefield’s public relations efforts suggests an intriguing idea: Perhaps a Christian utilizing media to promote his own celebrity is not a contradiction, especially in the media-driven 21st century. It’s arguably an example of Jesus’ command to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” A Christian who acquires celebrity is not necessarily a bad thing.
A rough analogy might be the historical use of icons in prayer. The Christian doesn’t worship the image itself, but rather they prayerfully use the icon as a means to help them focus on God. For instance, a person may have a picture of Mother Theresa hanging on the wall, but they don’t worship Mother Theresa. Rather, her image inspires them to be more Christ-like. When viewed from that perspective, a “Christian celebrity” can be an important means to draw the attention of both others toward God.
That said, of course, a Christian’s foray into celebrity is fraught with certain perils.
One obvious danger (especially in our media age) is the temptation to achieve fame quickly, without sacrifice or virtue. That’s why your distinction between true heroic celebrity and pseudo-celebrity is so important.
Another challenge for the Christian celebrity is that some consumers simply hunger for “junk food” media and don’t want to be challenged by heroic celebrity. It’s easier (and more pleasant) to absorb the latest tabloid headline about Kim Kardashian’s sex life than it is to consider a story about Saddleback pastor Rick Warren’s efforts to fight AIDS in Africa. The Kardashian story doesn’t force a person to examine his fellow human’s suffering and, by inference, his own responsibility to help alleviate that suffering.
A third challenge has to do with a Christian’s true motivation for acquiring celebrity. Your article mentions Christians “who would aspire to public celebrity.” For a Christian, this aspiration cannot be for its own sake. It comes down to the question: Does a Christian truly want to use their celebrity for the glory of God or do they simply crave the affirmation and attention that they imagine celebrity will bring them? To answer this question honestly requires maturity and a well-developed understanding of one’s self and faith, which Edwards and Whitefield seemed to possess. As you point out, both Edwards and Whitefield were more prepared to responsibly handle their celebrity than others may have been, and perhaps that’s why God bestowed it upon them.
But this raises another interesting question: the distinction between intentionally generating celebrity in an effort to glorify God, or simply recognizing and utilizing it if it happens to be bestowed upon you. It’s kind of like the old chicken-egg question. Which came first? The celebrity itself, which gives the Christian a platform to promote his worldview? Or the intentional effort to generate the celebrity in hopes that it will provide that platform?
Your article does a great job of raising these kinds of questions, which is an invaluable step toward creating a dialogue among Christian culture-makers. This dialogue is crucial in helping Christians negotiate the tension between being faithful and being a celebrity.