Saturday, March 19, 2011

Rob Bell, Rick Warren, and the Future of Evangelicalism

Rob Bell has made a huge splash in the Christian world with his book, Love Wins. I have not yet read the book, but from what I can discern from the interviews I’ve heard is that he expounds a vision of Christianity that is very similar to the one I have been advocating in my blog and books. He apparently argues against the traditional idea of hell and the possibility of redemption after death. One can read my vision of an inclusive Christian gospel in A Faith Worth Living: The Dynamics of an Inclusive Gospel, published earlier this month. (Resource Publications, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers; click on picture at right to order)

What Rev. Bell is proposing is, of course, nothing new. But it is the first time, as far as I know, a mega-church pastor, educated in and emerging from an evangelical tradition, has had the courage to publicly proclaim a more inclusive, holistic vision. A few other popular, influential Christian leaders are moving in that direction, but have not quite arrived there yet.

A case in point: Rick Warren, mega-church pastor and author of The Purpose-Driven Life. On one occasion Rev. Warren was on a panel with the Rev. Peter Gomes, minister of Harvard University’s Memorial Church and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals (recently deceased). The question was asked about whether one could be saved who was not a born-again Christian. The response of Rev. Gomes was that he could not imagine that the God who created everything would have no other plan of salvation for the billions of other people in the world, or even beyond our galaxy, except the New Testament one. Rev. Warren, as reported by Rev. Gomes in his book, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, was as generous as his theology would allow, but could not concede the possibility that others might find salvation outside of Christ on the basis of John 14:6.

This did not particularly strike me as noteworthy until I discovered in a book I purchased by Rabbi David J. Wolpe, titled Why Faith Matters, that Rev. Warren wrote the Foreword. He speaks highly of Rabbi Wolpe as a man of faith and personal experience of God. He says, “I’m certain that the profound insights in this book will stimulate your thinking and even touch your soul about the reality of God in fresh and surprising ways.”

The reason I find this all so intriguing is that, according to Rev. Warren’s evangelical theology, Rabbi Wolpe has not been saved by Jesus Christ (in the way that Warren interprets John 14:6) and is, therefore, destined for hell. Yet he commends Rabbi Wolpe as a man who knows and speaks about “the reality of God in fresh and surprising ways.”

Here is an example of a highly popular evangelical leader who evidently does not yet see the contradiction he embraces, or else chooses to ignore it. In my estimation, it is an example of an evangelical leader who has emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically outgrown his dualistic, exclusivistic theology, but who does not yet have the courage to admit it, either to himself or his immense fan base.

Rob Bell gives me hope for the evangelical church. It is slow in coming, but there is an evolving spiritual consciousness that is touching all areas of religious life. Let us hope that it will one day lead to the kingdom of God on earth as envisioned by Jesus.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Faith Is a Way of Life

Biblical scholar Marcus Borg writes about sitting next to a passenger on a plane who told him, “I’m much more interested in Buddhism and Sufism that I am in Christianity.” When he asked why, she said, “Because they’re about a way of life, and Christianity is all about believing.”

Unfortunately, this is the way Christianity is often perceived. Ask a friend what he or she thinks is meant by the phrase “true believer” and most likely your friend will say something about having the correct beliefs. What one believes about God, Jesus, and other teachings of Christian faith, however, is only one aspect of Christian faith.

Borg suggests that this is a rather odd notion when you think about it—that God would care that much about the beliefs we have in our heads, as if believing the right things is what God is after. It seems much more likely that God would be vastly more interested in the life we actually live—how we love and care for one another and our planet—than the limited, flawed, inaccurate beliefs we cling to in our minds.

It is not just progressive Christians who make this point. Evangelical philosopher and theologian Dallas Willard, in his book, The Divine Conspiracy, speaks disparagingly of what he calls “bar code faith.”

Think of the bar codes on products we purchase. The scanner responds only to the bar code. It makes no difference what is actually in the package, bottle, or container. The calculator reads the bar code through its electronic eye and then assigns a value.

Many Christians conceive of salvation very similarly. They think that by believing certain things about Jesus—that he is Divine, that he died for our sins and was raised from the dead, etc. (for some Christians it is a fairly long list)—God saves the believer (understood primarily as being forgiven and fit for heaven) and that is what constitutes a Christian.

Willard asks the questions: “Can we seriously believe that God would establish a plan for us that essentially bypasses the awesome needs of present human life and leaves human character untouched? . . . Can we believe that the essense of Christian faith and salvation covers nothing but death and after? Can we believe that being saved really has nothing whatever to do with the kinds of persons we are?”

There are reasons, some simple and some complex, why this understanding of Christian salvation developed, but it certainly did not originate with Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus both taught and embodied a way of life that he envisioned for his own people, Israel, and the rest of the world. He called this the kingdom of God. According to Jesus, living in the kingdom involves a lifestyle of nonviolence, forgiveness, compassion, peace, reconciliation, and distributive justice (where everyone has enough of this world’s resources to live a flourishing life).

This is why, in the book of Acts, the most common designation used for Christians is “people who belong to the way.” Not the way to heaven. Jesus hardly even spoke of heaven. Jesus manifested and spoke primarily about the kingdom of God and told his followers to pray for its realization on earth.

What one believes about Jesus is not nearly important as the daily commitment to be like Jesus. A belief in the head is useless, unless it is able to transform the heart, so that “the believer” exudes the faith, hope, and love of Jesus, and aspires to pursue his compassionate, nonviolent, self-giving way of life.