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Posts Tagged ‘Rob Bell’

I actually mean to talk about the existence of a personal God, and how I think I don’t believe in one, but “Personal Jesus” is the name of a Depeche Mode song, and I like Depeche Mode.  Now watch this, which isn’t about Depeche Mode at all, but is a video by Rob Bell, a prominent emergent Christianity writer/pastor.

The idea of a personal God that loves me is a fantastic, thrilling idea.  I find it incredibly compelling.  Rob Bell’s video makes me cry.  I would like it to be true.  Unfortunately, I just don’t think it is.

In his book, Finding Faith, Brian McLaren (another prominent emergent writer) discusses the choice between belief in a personal God versus an impersonal God and he quite lightly dismisses the latter as a fool’s notion.  It’s interesting, because Finding Faith is otherwise a surprisingly even-handed.  I mean, McLaren is definitely doing his best to help his reader figure out how to believe in Jesus, so he has an agenda, but even so he gives reasonably fair credit and acknowledgement to contrary ideas.

But not to this one.  Why not?  Like I said, he quickly dismisses the idea by saying that since God must be higher than us, and since we have personality and the ability to relate meaningfully to each other, then it doesn’t make sense for God to not be the same, only better.  Like if we have personality he must have some sort of superpersonality.  A similar theme runs through much of C. S. Lewis’s work.  I guess it’s a fine enough idea, but it falls into what I believe is a trap: it acknowledges God’s transcendent nature, and then attempts to define him in comprehensible terms.  Or rather, comprehensible terms plus.  Where we have personality, he has personality like ours, but better in a way we can’t imagine.  In my opinion, it’s an easy cop-out and ultimately reduces the Transcendent into the quasi-transcendent, which is not transcendent at all.  The incomprehensible becomes the almost comprehensible, and thus really just another kind of comprehensible.  Transcendence in quantity only.

Basically, Brian McLaren is saying that he thinks that his transcendent God should be so, and therefore must be so.  I’m not convinced, mostly because I think if God exists, he is probably fairly resistent to our feeble attempts to corral him, measure him, and define him into something much smaller than he actually is.  And I don’t think we really get to weigh in with our notions of “should” on the specifications of the supreme being.  Although we certainly try (myself included).

In the end, I do not believe in a personal God because I don;t have the one piece of evidence that would be convincing: actual interaction with God.  I pray, he doesn’t answer.  I try to have conversations with him, he doesn’t talk back.  I don’t even really have any assurance that he’s listening (other than my impressive array of “shoulds”).  If God exists, he does not seem to interact with me in any way that would imply personality.  And I’ve tried (and will honestly continue to try) from my end.

I guess other people claim to interact with God, and I can’t really refute what they claim, but it has never happened to me, so I’m going to have to move forward with what I’ve got.

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When I read Emergent writers like Brian McLaren and Rob Bell, I find myself nodding and agreeing with so much of what they say.  I find the emergent conversation compelling enough that I actually sought out the church that McLaren founded, and that’s where my wife and I go every Sunday these days.

There’s a lot about the emergent conversation that I really like.  But I also have some problems with it that I would like to discuss.   These problems are interrelated and difficult to make really distinct, so they don’t really lend themselves to a bullet-point list in order of importance or something like that.  Instead, I’ll just pretty much tackle the whole thing at once, starting wherever and typing until I feel like I’ve said all I have to say.

One problem I have is that I see, for the most part, the emergent conversation/emerging church is really a child of evangelical Christianity as opposed to Christianity as a whole.  In a way, it seems like a kind of mini-Protestantism, emerging from fundamentalism and evangelicalism the way Protestant Christianity emerged from Catholicism.  The thing was, in the fifteenth century, Catholicism is all there was, so the Reformation was a big thing- its adherents were birthed from the entirety of western Christianity.

By contrast, the emerging church is mostly just the product of evangelicalism, which is only a small slice of current Christianity.  Thus, I feel like it rests on many evangelical assumptions, despite trying its best to be ecumenical and “generous” in its theology and outlook.

In short, I feel like emergent Christianity (and I knowingly use the terms “emerging” and “emergent” interchangeably, Mark Driscoll’s opinions notwithstanding) begins by making evangelical assumptions, finds problems there, and simply assumes that the answers can’t be found anywhere else in Christianity.  Even in McLaren’s Generous Orthodoxy, which is a great book, and you should read it, the hat-tip he gives to the rest of Christianity is largely superficial, and betrays his deel evangelical/fundamentalist roots.

Why do I care about this?  Well, for one thing, I have some concerns about evangelical Christianity that the emerging church doesn’t really resolve.  Second, recent things I’ve read make me wonder if the emerging church isn’t really just trying to reinvent the wheel, while rejecting the possibility that the wheel has actually already been invented and refined if not perfected.

I just finished reading Rowan Williams’s book Where God Happens.  Rowan Williams is the Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion.  I plan on posting something lengthy about Anglicanism in the near future, but suffice to say for the moment that Anglicanism is one of the paths I am seriously considering in my journey towards Jesus Christ, but I also have very serious doubts and reservations.

Where God Happens is a short book about the Desert Fathers and the relevance for people today of their teachings, sayings, and way of life.  Interestingly enough, the concepts that Dr. Williams pulls out of the sayings and practices of the Desert Fathers are in many ways extremely similar to the theological ideas and concepts of the emergent church.

This was an extraordinary discovery for me.  Until that point, the emergent conversation had been my oasis, the shining example of what it seemed like Christianity should really be about.  But here is the Archbishop of Canterbury invoking the fourth-century Desert Fathers (and Mothers; let’s not leave out Amma Syncletica) and the result is basically the same message!  In particular, the ideas about community and relationship and Christian discipleship are startlingly similar to the theological ideas of McLaren et al.  But more importantly, this same message is in a context that lends it so much more authority- or at least that makes it so much more authoritative– than the hemming and hawing we’re-just-regular-guys McLaren and Bell even come close to.  This is completely steeped in the fullness of Christian history and tradition.

The result is that I start to wonder about putting too many of my eggs in the emergent basket.  If they’re just reinventing the wheel, they’re doing it in a humble but arrogant way, assuming that the wheel hasn’t already been invented and highly refined just because they don’t find the wheel in their narrow evangelical and fundamentalist backgrounds.

If all of the things that I like about emergent theology are there for the discovering in historic orthodox Christianity, then maybe emergent Christianity isn’t as great asI thought it was, especially considering my other concerns with evangelicalism that are carried over into the emergent conversation.

Another concern I have with the emergent conversation is in terms of the practice of worship.  While one stream of the emergent conversation is concerned with reworking and refining theology, there’s another, maybe more major stream that is concerned with new and relevant ways of worship.  I am not as excited about this stream, although it is generally seen by the rest of the evangelical world as the more acceptable facet of emergent Christianity.

These new ways of worship often involve pairing religious innovation with recovered ancient Christian traditions.  Once again, my problem is that this is completely from an evangelical standpoint.  The ancient traditions of worship and spirituality are not lost; they have merely been abandoned by evangelical Protestantism.  They are still easy to find and access in many Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and even traditional Protestant churches and communities.  And when the emergent church “recaptures” these traditions, they always seem so much more… superficial than they do when seen in practice in their traditional context, in something like an Eastern Orthodox Liturgy.

Furthermore, I’m not necessarily always excited about innovative worship.  To me, it assumes that the traditional ways have been fully mined for meaning and there’s none left, so we need to make up something new.  And I challenge that assertion.  I think part of the problem is a media-soaked culture that has forgotten how to be still and reflective, how to take time, to be thoughtful, and to let spiritual things penetrate deeply.  I think if we could recover contemplation, then the traditional ways of worship, the ones that have proven themselves relevant to human beings for up to twenty centuries, will still be just as relevant as they have always been.

I think there is room for thoughtful innovation in worship, but I think it is a thing that should be done carefully and deliberately, not recklessly.

My final criticism of the emerging church is its concern with being relevant to the postmodern person, and its general marriage to postmodernism.  As a postmodern person, it seems great, but at the same time, I long for a faith that stands outside of and independent of philosophical trends and momentary (compared to the continuity of human history) ways of thinking.  Christianity existed before modernism, and I think embracing modernism was the worst thing that could have happened to Christianity (I’ll post more about this later, but in my opinion, embracing modernism means either taking the path of theological liberalism or the path of theological fundamentalism, both of which make Christianity look foolish).  At the same time, I have no real confidence that people won’t say the same thing about postmodernism in a few hundred years.  Postmodernism may be a new way of thinking and a refreshing alternative to modernism, but that doesn’t mean that we’ve “finally gotten it right.”  Down the road, postmodernism will be outdated and will be junked with all of the other antiquated philosophical frameworks that humanity has consigned to the collective cognitive dusty attic.

I think Christianity should be able to stand outside of passing waves of philosophy- it should be something that endures apart from and independent of “the way people think.”  It should be an alternative to the current philosophical trend, not just one more manifestation of it.  It might make Christianity difficult to the individual who is hesitant to set aside his conventional philosophical framework, but I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.  I believe that there are ways in which Christianity should be difficult.  When Jesus Christ said his yoke was easy and his burden was light, I really don’t think he meant that his way meant not having to change the way we live and think.  In fact, I’m fairly convinced that he meant the opposite.

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First, before you read this post and certainly before you comment, go back and at least read The Old Limbo Crossroads, to get some background. It’s better if you’re new to this blog to get completely caught up by reading What’s Going On, but the previous Crossroads is really the bare minimum.

Okay, now on to the topic at hand, which is Evangelical Christianity.

I grew up Mormon, but I grew up in East Tennessee, which means that most of my peers were Evangelical Christians of some kind. Most of my close friends were nonreligious or Roman Catholic, but most of the Christianity that I was exposed to in my formative years was evangelical.

In particular, I had one really good evangelical friend whose name was Brock. We had kind of a common understanding that meant we didn’t try to convert each other, but through him I was exposed to a lot of the people that he went to church with. This exposure was often limited, but it was significant: these were people who really believed in Jesus Christ, who lived Christ-centered lives, and who were happy about it. You could see it in their faces, that Jesus Christ had made a difference. It was something that I did not see in my fellow Mormons, and it was something that stuck with me and was not easy to reconcile, even on my mission. I often thought back to these people and wondered how, if the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was really Christ’s church on earth, how these non-members could be so obviously and vibrantly Christian.

As I served my mission, my understanding of Jesus Christ developed and it drifted towards a more full understanding of grace, one which I inevitably had to try to reconcile with Mormonism (and I did it by constantly revising the Gospel According To Kullervo). Most of the doubts I had about Mormonism were laced with Evangelical concerns. My personal understanding of Jesus Christ ultimately developed into something very Protestant, with Mormonism’s specific practices and odd doctrinal quirks pretty much tacked on to the side.

Thus, last year when I finally started giving serious voice to my doubts about Mormonism, it was because I increasingly saw Mormonism as something that did not match my understanding of Jesus Christ, the Bible, and what I thought Christianity was all about.

Granted, leaving Mormonism ultimately led me to have to seriously examine, and in the end dig up and re-plant, my belief in Jesus Christ and in God. But I feel at this point that I have come full circle and I am now back in a place where I can state without (much) reservation that I believe in Jesus and I want to follow him.

Anyway, because of all of this, Evangelical Christianity is attractive to me. I have very little interest in theological liberalism (a topic that I will address in a future post), and reading some of the writers in the Emergent conversation (Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Donald Miller) within Evangelical Christianity has done a great deal to resolve many of my major theological concerns, showing me that I actually can be an Evangelical Christian without being a mindless fundamentalist or a rabid Republican. It has all been extremely compelling.

Right now my family is attending Cedar Ridge Community Church, which is a kind of emergent Evangelical nondenominational church, and it’s a really good place. It has a lot going for it. I agree with everything they preach form the pulpit, but in a way that challenges me instead of leaving me complacent. I am excited about their commitment to reaching out and blessing the world in so many ways. It is a church where I have few objections. But the more time goes by, and the more I find myself wanting to seriously follow, serve, and draw closer to, Jesus Christ, the more those objections seem to be a big deal.

Most of my objections have to do with Evangelical Christianity in general as opposed to the church we attend in specific.

The first is a question of authority, or more properly, of authoritative-ness. I guess I believe that all authority is given to Jesus Christ, like it says in the gospels, and that this authority still resides in Jesus, as opposed to being found in a book or in a pedigree of clergy or priesthood. Since Jesus promised us that when we are gathered in his name, he is among us, we have access to his authority when we are acting in his name.

That’s fine and good, and it’s actually kind of a tangent, because it’s not really my problem. My problem is that in the church I attend, there’s a real sense of all being on the journey together, like we’re all trying to be disciples of Jesus Christ in the best way we can, and we’re helping each other do that. That sounds great, but it doesn’t do the trick for me.

While there may be Authority, the kind that actually only Jesus has from the Father, I don’t feel like this set-up is very authoritative. Trustworthy. Reliable. Solid. I don’t feel like this church as an institution has much of any weight behind it whatsoever. It doesn’t feel solid. I’m not saying I think it won’t last- the church has been around for 25 years after all. But what is 25 years in the nearly 2000-year history of Christianity? What institutional experience and wisdom can there even be in an organization that is so new, especially one that is both Evangelical and Emergent, both of which in the context of church history mean some measure of rejection of broad arrays of Christian tradition?

My point is that I don’t feel like Evangelical churches are authoritative. I don’t think the Bible alone makes them authoritative, either, and I also don’t even think belief in Jesus Christ makes them authoritative.

What I’m trying to say is this- I wouldn’t feel confident going to the pastor at Cedar Ridge for personal or spiritual guidance. I feel like he’s just a guy, same as me, trying to figure thigs out. That has a certain appeal, sure, especially from the pulpit (there isn’t technically a pulpit, but that’s beside the point), but at the same time it doesn’t make me feel like he’s a spiritual leader that I could turn to. As far as I know, he hasn’t been to a seminary or anything. It’s kind of a surprise that that matters to me, growing up Mormon with a lay clergy, but as it turns out I think it actually matters a lot.

So with Evangelical Christianity, I have problems with how authoritative I feel the institutions and clergy are. My second problem is more theological. In theory, I believe in Jesus Christ’s atoning sacrifice, once for all. I believe in salvation by grace through faith. I believe that the price for my sins has already been paid, that I am already forgiven before I even did anything wrong.

My problem is that that sounds great on paper and in conversation, but it seems too abstract in practice. Let’s say I do something wrong, and feel bad about it. What am I supposed to do to be right with God? My theology tells me that inasmuch as I have faith in Jesus Christ, I am already right with God. But that doesn’t seem very real. I feel like I’m left trying to convince myself that I’m already forgiven and that it’s already taken care of and I should just be thankful for what Jesus did for me. But I still feel really bad, and all I can do is try, in vain, to talk myself out of the guilt.

It’s all abstract: I just have to trust that my wrongs were already righted 2,000ish years ago so I have nothing to worry about. But I have a hard time convincing myself of it. Maybe it’s because I really don’t have faith. Maybe it’s because I’m still stuck in a Mormon mindset that demands I earn my salvation. I don’t know. But at the very least, I would like something concrete to do, at least an outward manifestation of reconciliation, so I can have some kind of closure on my sins. I’m not talking about earning forgiveness; I know I can’t do that. I just mean that I want to be able to somehow make concrete the abstract idea of my salvation by the grace of God. And Evangelical Christianity, in my opinion, doesn’t really offer that. It has no real sacraments, no clergy to confess to. It seems like the whole religion is just about deciding you believe, and then being glad about it.

I see it seem work for other people, and in theory I think it sounds great. But in practice it doesn’t seem to have any effect. I don’t feel transformed, healed, or even justified by just “realizing it’s all okay.”

Maybe I’ve missed the point- maybe Christianity is about realizing, for real, that it is okay, that Jesus made it so when you believe in him your sins are gone, and there’s nothing you have to do but acknowledge and accept it, for real. Maybe my insistence on some external performance is holding me back from real conversion, real faith, and the kind of transformational Christianity that I’m hungry for. I acknowledge the possibility. But it doesn’t change anything. And reassurances from other Christians that I’m on the right track are nice and supportive, but they’re not authoritative- they’re just more people like me, in the same boat as I am. What do they know? How are they more trustworthy than I am?

I imagine that the person that I really should trust is Jesus, that he has told me himself that he has atoned for my sins, and that anything else would just be noise. Maybe. But it doesn’t seem to be happening, to really be connecting. Again, I am left feeling like I’m just trying to talk myself out of feeling guilty.

I’ve talked about forgiveness for sins as probably the most important example, but the principles apply to the sum total of religious life. Evangelical Christianity has all of the action happen in the long ago and far away, and thus in the inaccessible abstract.

My third problem with Evangelical Christianity is the form of worship. For the most part, praise bands and Christian pop music do absolutely nothing for me. I want the deep spirituality of liturgy and hymns. I’m not trying to be a worship-consumer or anything, but modern, contemporary worship just doesn’t feel like it has any weight behind it. It is sincere but ephemeral, and seems to be primarily a matter of emotional appeal. Part of leaving Mormonism was the realization that emotions are not the same thing as the Holy Spirit. Emotions are the product of propaganda as often as they are the product of nearness to God.

Evangelical Christianity (particularly, for me at least, the emergent conversation) is firmly rooted in scripture, reason (within the context of faith), and mysticism (i.e. the Holy Spirit), but has abandoned tradition almost entirely. I know the emergent conversation has made overtures at recapturing some tradition, but in my opinion it’s been barely more than a token effort, and comes across as superficial to me.

In fact, sometimes Evangelical Christianity seems altogether tacky and plastic, not anything like an ancient Middle Eastern (or even European) faith tradition, and certainly not anything like the Kingdom of Heaven.

Finally, I have some issues with Community. I feel like Christian community is absolutely critical, as Jesus commanded his disciples to be one even as he is one with the Father. I realize that the emergent conversation has tried to emphasize this, but in practice it seems ot not be happening. How do you have authentic community in a megachurch?

Even at Cedar Ridge, which is certainly no megachurch, it seems to me like the congregation might be too big for authentic community, and although they try really hard (and admirably) to foster community, it seems artificial. It’s like they’re trying to make a plant by mixing the component parts all together in a bowl, instead of planting the seeds, setting up the right conditions, and cultivating it as it grows.

Anyway, I have a strange love-hate relationship with Evangelical Christianity, and I’m hesitant to embrace it more fully than I already have, while at the same time, it has things that I want and need that I don’t know if I really can find anywhere else. And I feel like I must face the real possibility that my hesitation is because of the lingering effects of my Mormon roots, or maybe because I simply haven’t fully been able to understand and appreciate what Jesus Christ is all about.

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