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Prodigal Christianity Part 2

Fitch and Holsclaw seek to describe reality today in North America. One term they talk about a lot is Postmodernity. For 500 years, the West has been fascinated with science and ideas. Logic, proof, and argument have ruled the day. But somewhere along the way people began to tire of this. As I read the early part of the book my memory was jogged. I realized there had been a day I discovered postmodernism. Nobody had ever used that term in my presence. I had never read a book by anyone who knew the term. It was the Spring of 1986 and I was finishing up my freshman philosophy class at the University of Iowa. I was a religion major with vague ministry goals. My own faith was growing quickly after a detour in my middle teen years. Jesus was tremendously real to me. We had to write a final position paper for this philosophy class. Of course, I wrote mine on the “proofs” for the existence of God. I eagerly headed to the Graduate Assistant’s office to pick up my paper and receive my final grade. I was sure I had nailed the paper. Terry smiled and handed me my paper with a B- on it. I frowned. “B-? Why did you give me a B-?”
He said, “I gave you a B- because you didn’t take the other position seriously enough.”
I said, “I don’t take it that seriously because I don’t believe it. I believe God truly exists.”
He said, “Yes, but for the assignment it’s about whether that could be proved.”
“I think I did prove it,” I said. So he took the paper back and looked it over again. He told me that I did as good of a job as anyone has at defending the viewpoint but that the consensus has been that you can’t prove God’s existence. I couldn’t resist, so I asked him if he believed in God. He said, “Not really. I’m sort of an agnostic.” Snappy young fellow as I was, I asked him if his bias might be causing him to downplay my position. Maybe he wasn’t taking ME seriously enough!
Terry smiled again. He said, “I have to admit, I’ve never had a student with such a strong conviction about this before.” And then I knew that our conversation was not an accident. I looked at the clock on the wall. In exactly five minutes the parking meter was going to read: EXPIRED. I also was going to be cutting it close to make it to work on time. But something told me not to go.
Terry, said, “Tim, you have my attention. You seem to have a very deep and personal conviction about God. In the philosophy department they tell us to check our theological hats at the door. (I’ll never forget that phrase.) It’s actually refreshing. Since I haven’t met many people like you, I’d like to hear your story. How are you so certain? How is God so real to you?”
I went down the logical arguments I had covered in the paper. But for each one he was able to come up with some sort of logic that could challenge it. I realized that these answers weren’t all that satisfying to me either. Logic just wasn’t cutting it, but it was mostly what I had heard from others. My mind raced backwards. Although Terry was probably 10 years older than me, just a couple years before I also had been doubting like him. I began to tell him about how things were then.
“Nothing could get through to me for over a year. But along the way I met a girl who had a lot of spiritual questions. Frankly, I found those questions quite irritating at first. She was seeking what I was running away from. But she was so beautiful I wasn’t going anywhere… (Um, shallow, I know but I was 16) Eventually, her seeking awakened my own spiritual center. Something so pure was at work in her. And through her, something began to soften my heart. (By the way she is now my wife!) One night in February 1985, I became aware of a holy presence, something completely “other”. Whatever the past had been, this was the present. I was aware of this holy presence and my own sinful, selfish ways. This holy presence was offering me a fresh start.” I looked Terry right in the eye and said, “I had a personal confrontation with the holiness of God that required a choice.” I could see a path leading toward light if I said yes, but out into darkness if I said, no. I said, yes and my life began to change.

At this point in talking with Terry, I felt like I was on fire. I hadn’t felt so alive since the moment that I was telling him about had first happened. I was now officially late for work but I didn’t care. Terry leaned back and said, “I guess that’s what you’d have to say…”
“Terry, it’s real. Can you feel it? I feel God here  just like I did that day.”
He said, “Tim, I actually believe you. Now that I understand how firmly you believe this I understand what you were saying in the paper. I’m changing your grade to a B+. But more than that you’ve affected me. I shared with you that I’m an agnostic. But I do actually wonder about God. If God is real I’d like to be able to know it like you feel you do. Whenever I get the chance to watch a sunset with my girlfriend, I take a bottle of wine and we think and talk together about ultimate things. I open my heart to the possibility of faith. I promise you that the next time I do that, I’ll be thinking of your story and considering all that you said to me.”
I told him not to wait until then, but to reflect on it anytime it came to mind. He thanked me for taking the time to share my story.
I floated back to my car… I now had two parking tickets and was already 45minutes late for work. I called and explained the odd situation. Miraculously they understood. I couldn’t believe I didn’t lose my job. I was still on fire. At age 18, I knew the purpose of the rest of my life. I also understood that the world had shifted. I wouldn’t know the word postmodern for several years. But I knew people were much more interested in my story than in logical arguments. And I loved hearing more about Terry’s story. Those were precious moments spent with him. I was transformed a bit by the process and Terry was, too. God was at work in a way I hadn’t realized before. And it was more compelling than any religious idea or argument could fully capture. Make no mistake I believe there is truth that will set you free. But from that moment on I knew the truth had to be lived and shared before I could fully know it or be completely free.

This is the cultural landscape I believe Fitch and Holsclaw are talking about in their book- Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier. This post-Christendom Far Country is logically frustrating for Christians. But we can navigate through this territory without losing our way. In fact, as Fitch says, God has already gone before us as we travel. He is already there, already at work in others’ lives. It was good to be reminded of these events as I read these compelling early chapters…

Hello, Rob Bell…

If you’re a Christian leader you probably heard about Rob Bell before 2 weeks ago. But if you don’t live under a rock you’ve heard of him since then! His new book—Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived created a firestorm when a promotional video was released. It questioned traditional views on hell.
If I had to choose a Facebook category for my relationship with Rob Bell’s ideas, “it’s complicated” would win. I’ve really enjoyed some of his sermons and Nooma videos. He definitely has a pastor’s heart. He’s studied the Bible in the original languages. He gets our culture. He’s not afraid to offend. He’s a gifted communicator. All things I respect. But he’s a whipping boy for conservatives (and some of my friends.) He’s a hero to others (and some of my friends). So if I really liked or disliked something he said or did, I had to think twice to avoid offending someone. He’s a guilty pleasure one day (like brownies at 11:30pm) and big bother the next (like a zit on your chin!)
But he made his boldest move yet with Love Wins. The video was brilliant to create buzz. Last night he frustrated me with a live web event. At midnight I downloaded the book and finished by mid-morning.
Let me begin by saying Rob Bell is not a heretic. His personal views are not totally revealed, but the options presented are consistent with some ancient Christian teachers. Let me also say I can’t embrace all he presents about salvation and the afterlife. But who else could have gotten us all talking about such important issues? The book is clearly not written to debate with people like me. It’s written to engage with people outside of church life. I think it can do this well. It attempts to explain how heaven and hell fit into the good news of Jesus. He starts with the deep reservations many outside the church have with a God who eternally punishes most of humanity. This point can be offensive to Christians, but not to his audience.
He’s as controversial as he can be in the first couple chapters. He messes with our tidy notions of the gospel by showing vastly different metaphors Jesus (and Paul) used. He says a woman wrote Hebrews (not sure this is an actual conviction of his) and that traditional views of the afterlife have been used to oppress the masses through the ages. He calls his gramma’s cross-bridge painting creepy! But eventually he settles into examining the relevant Scriptures. He creatively (somewhat ambiguously) lets his views come through over time. More than ever it’s hard to pin him down at times. As usual, no footnotes. He supports his views only with Scripture references and stories.
Heaven is the fullness of God’s Kingdom on a renewed earth. In an important sense for Bell’s Jesus, heaven is wherever God rules. The goal of salvation is to reunite earth and heaven. Heaven ultimately won’t be another “place” we go, it’s another reality that comes here. This part can be strongly supported by Scripture.
One genius of the book is in the case he makes that salvation, heaven and hell have a lot more to do with this life than we may realize. We should listen to Bell on this. We’ve all known people who’ve made a hell on earth by rejecting God’s vision for life. Many Christians have experienced eternal life as peace on earth now. Often Jesus’ talk of hell is a warning to religious people to change their behavior. It’s surprising that he often says sinners may be in the Kingdom and religious people may not. He spends a lot of time explaining the behaviors and attitudes of people who experience heaven. Rather than implying a magical character change for Christians at death, Jesus implies the importance of letting grace change you now. (a view Nazarenes have always embraced.)
Bell says this change is what would allow us to enjoy heaven (the fullness of the Kingdom). But, bravely for a man in Grand Rapids, he emphasizes free will. It’s our choice. God’s love let’s us choose. Hell is essentially refusing to accept/trust God’s version of our story. We bring destruction on ourselves whenever we reject God’s love & forgiveness. 2 images dominate.
1. Luke 15’s parable of the father with 2 sons shows our options. Finally give up living a faulty story and come home to the party (prodigal son) or stubbornly refuse to enjoy it (elder brother).
2. Revelation 21:25 (describing the heavenly city coming down for God to finally make his dwelling among humanity.) “On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there.”
Bell says “And then there are others who ask, if you get another chance after you die, why limit that chance to one-off immediately after death? And so they expand the possibilities, trusting that there will be endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God.
As long as it takes, in other words.” (p.55)
This is a form of universalism, but Bell doesn’t exactly say it’s his view. He rightfully demonstrates that a minority of Christians in every age have believed this way. His motive is evangelism. He spends the rest of the book attempting to make a compelling case for accepting/trusting in God’s story now. Why miss a moment of eternal life? His goal is to reach those for whom one and done eternal punishment is the one barrier to accepting the Christian story. “You don’t have to believe this to be a Christian,” Bell says.
He hasn’t convinced me that this “eventually view” is the most biblical view. But neither would I be upset if this turned out to be true. I don’t want anyone to suffer the torment of hell. I want everyone to experience eternal life. (In the tradition of Wesley, Inclusivism is closer to my view, as in Wesley’s “On Heaven” sermon.) I have concerns that some could put this choice off, not feeling motivated to choose now. But Bell makes clear the destructive consequences of delay.
I reread portions of the book this afternoon and gained a less defensive perspective. I can’t embrace the book fully. But because he rooted this presentation in the Scriptures, demonstrated the centrality of Christ, and has a clearly evangelistic motive I’m glad he wrote this book.
I hope it creates an opportunity for more people to accept/trust God’s version of the story. Even if this “eventually” view is mistaken, once people are walking with Christ in the reality of the Kingdom, he can correct any errors. (Not that we should offer bait and switch if we don’t believe something has validity.)
Doctrine matters. Truth has boundaries. I’m more traditional than Bell. But at least we’re talking about heaven/hell. I hope more people find peace with God. I plan to engage people in conversation about the book. I pray this conversation gets us all in touch with eternal realities (saving/sanctifying grace) surrounding us every moment, offering to transform us in preparation for enjoying heaven forever. The Gospel really is good news and I can’t wait to experience it in fullness! It’s time we celebrated it. Easter’s right around the bend!

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