Category Archives: Christianity and Pop Culture

The Theology of Superman: Hope for the Empire

By now, many will have already seen this article or others like it describing the Warner Bros. campaign to get pastors to talk about Man of Steel this past Sunday, which was Fathers’ Day, using a guide developed by Pepperdine theologian Craig Detweiler. The main thrust of the sermon is centered around this question: “How might the story of Superman awaken our passion for the greatest hero who ever lived and died and rose again?”

The CNN story goes on to set up the “debate” surrounding this marketing tactic on the part of Warner Bros. as between Christians who think this is a good way to show the world that we can get behind something in pop culture and those who think films are “pumped out from Hollywood’s sewers.”

What is fascinating to me about this set up is that it simply takes the messianic parallels as given and obvious. The film is just obviously about Jesus and parallel to his story–so now the only question is whether or not Christians are willing to trust Hollywood to speak the story of Jesus to them through a “worldly” medium like film. As Detweiler himself is quoted in the article, “All too often, religious communities have been defined by what they’re against. With a movie like `Man of Steel,’ this is a chance to celebrate a movie that affirms faith, sacrifice and service.”

My concern is that “faith, sacrifice, and service,” while all wonderful attributes to have, do not sum up the story of Jesus. In fact, by making that the distillation of Jesus’ life and ministry, the sermon notes seem to direct us away from what should be the most troubling divergences between the story of Superman and the story of Jesus by focusing on the archetypal parallels.

No one should be surprised that Man of Steel, or the mythology of Superman more generally, has strong parallels to the Jesus narrative. You would be hard-pressed to find a story archetype in Western literature that cannot be traced back to the biblical narrative. With regard to superhero archetypes especially, the parallels to the story of Christ and the messianic archetype (which does not originate with Jesus) are more than obvious. So what, then, could these sermon notes be other than a reminder, saying, “Hey! Stories like Man of Steel are retellings of your religion’s story of salvation. But with way more explosions. Let’s look at this clip!” Superman is a story of hope. Kal-El is a character (like Spock, like Gandalf, like a lot of characters in the world of science fiction and fantasy) who deviates from his origin, his true nature, choosing to become more human and embracing those characteristics (usually emotion, empathy, etc.) which are made to be the epitome of humanness, and suffering some consequences for it.

The problem is that to say the story of Jesus can be encapsulated in a single statement about the hope of salvation makes that story completely one-dimensional and misses the what of salvation entirely. And by the way, this one-dimensional view of salvation is probably how many Christians view their own faith: Jesus has punched my ticket into Heaven–now that’s something I can put my hope in! That’s why we love stories like this–or any other myriad versions of the story of hope in salvation from… something.

It’s that something that makes up the really vital difference between Superman and Jesus. Man of Steel is an origin story, establishing the basic relationships between Superman and everyone else so that a few more films can be made before another reboot. One of those relationships is between Superman and the US government–that is, Superman and the empire. Some (especially Evangelicals) will find that comparison offensive, but it’s certainly true. You don’t earn the title of “World Superpower” without being an empire. So Superman goes “on call” for the empire at the end of the film. He’s not its soldier, like the Marvel parallel Captain America. He still maintains some independence, but he also has no interest in subverting the empire in any way. Now, I don’t mean a coup d’etat like his friend General Zod stages on Krypton. But the US perpetrates plenty of injustice worldwide on a daily basis. What would be really Christlike is if in the second film, we see Superman staging nonviolent protests against drones strikes against innocent people, or helping to shut down Gitmo, choosing not to use his immense power when he very easily could–we could go on and on like this. Instead, Superman becomes a symbol of hope for the empire itself. The film may portray Superman’s struggle with his identity, and I think it does a good job of that, but at the end of the day, Superman is not just a human–he’s an American.

Admittedly, the nonviolent Superman probably wouldn’t make for a very interesting film. Superman’s power is not in his ability to speak radically in a way that moves an agenda of radical subversion against an oppressive empire. He punches stuff. And flies. And cuts stuff with his heat vision. All of that is fantastic–I really enjoyed the film. But none of it represents the mission of Jesus. There’s no account of Jesus fighting Tiberius through the streets of Rome (the Colosseum didn’t exist yet) which, I must admit, would’ve been badass.

The hope that Jesus brings is salvation from the oppressive force brought upon the poor, the weak, the widowed, the orphaned, the sick by the powers of the world–the Roman empire and all those in service to it. And he does this through a radically nonviolent means of subversion to the point of his death. This is the fuller, deeper meaning of the hope of salvation. The moment we begin to compare Superman and Jesus in this respect, the parallel falls apart.

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What Did Jesus Come to Abolish?

It may be that this post is a little late given that sharing on Facebook of and responses in the blogosphere to this viral video have died down. A lot has been said, and now, all that’s left seem to be memes like this little gem:

I fall somewhere in the middle of the responses to this. I can appreciate what Jeff Bethke is trying to do. I don’t like phony, legalistic Christians either. So in that sense I can resonate with my friends who shared this on Facebook and elsewhere–they want to focus on what is important to our faith (whatever that is–I’ll get there in a minute.) At the same time, I agree with Tony Jones and Jonathan Fitzgerald that there is something amiss here. Does legalism equal religion? Certainly not.

I agree with Fitzgerald on this point:

“See the problem is, Bethke doesn’t mean religion either, but he’s rehearsing a popular evangelical trope, that the freedom that Christians find through Jesus is freedom from structure, organization, and authority.”

He makes the salient point that if Bethke had called the video something else, had used “Sunday Christians” or even “False Religion” instead of just “Religion,” he would have avoided many of the problems that have been raised about his diatribe that is meant to help believers get beyond behavior modification and following a laundry list of rules in order to reach the “center” of their faith–following Jesus [in whatever way that looks like as long as it doesn’t involve rules.]

There are two important observations we can make about rules. First, Fitzgerald and Jones are right that structure [rule-making] is inevitable, simply a fact of human nature. Even in the rule-hater’s quest to abolish the rules, he or she is most likely still abiding by codes of conduct and social mores because let’s face it–no one is going to listen to you unless you play by the rules or are willing to resort to significant violence. And even when you choose the latter, it could be that nothing changes. Wittgenstein makes this same point when he talks about “language games.” Changes are possible in language, but only if the game is played [people understand and accept the change–which takes a very long time and cannot really be predicted or directed.]

Second, why should rules be inherently bad? Thinking of games again, I would hate to play Monopoly or Settlers of Catan with no rules. It’s just not possible. Imagine a chess board laid out before you. You and another person decide to play, but you have no idea how–so you make it up. Right from the beginning, a decision governing the type of play has to be made: Are you playing against each other, or are you on a team playing against the board somehow [as in Solitaire.]  It probably makes the most sense to play against each other. From that point you have to set objectives, a mode of play–and rules that govern those things. You cannot proceed toward an end, a goal, without establishing the way in which that is to be achieved. It is simply unavoidable if the game is to have any coherence at all. The very notion of play to begin with suggests some kind of structure.

In this more abstract, philosophical sense, it makes no sense to talk about abolishing the “rules of Religion” in order to just follow Jesus and love people when we would have no idea how to do those things without first receiving instruction. Like play, when we start with an idea of “practicing a faith” we are already bound by a certain structure. We may not think of that in terms of “rules,” and that’s okay, maybe even beneficial, but the idea is the same. That kind of instruction may be more like flexible guidelines than rigid rules, and there were commands from Jesus (pick up your cross and follow me) that probably fall in this category. However, Jesus really was not the anti-religion, institution destroyer that Bethke and his fans want him to be.

Most people think of the Pharisees when they think of the sort of person bound by the chains of Religion that Bethke is talking to: someone going through the motions of dead ritual without any power behind what they’re doing. Jesus did have a problem with that–but he didn’t call it religion.

He called it “not bearing fruit.”

In Matthew 21:18-22, we have one of the more misunderstood and strange actions of Jesus recorded in the Gospels.

In the morning, when he returned to the city, he was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once. When the disciples saw it, they were amazed, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” Jesus answered them, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.”

People normally talk about the power of prayer or faith in relation to this passage [or how Jesus maybe wasn’t a fan of ecology] but it makes more sense to read this short episode in the context of what has just happened. Jesus made his entrance into Jerusalem the day before and spent the whole day ridding the temple of practices that were not bearing any fruit. He returned the following day and presented the chief priests and Pharisees with a couple parables that conclude with this:

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.

Later, in Matthew 23, Jesus gets explicit about his issue with what the Pharisees are doing. In short, he’s pissed that they are screwing up religion. Not that they’re practicing it. Religion isn’t what is getting in the way–the Pharisees are getting in the way of themselves. Jesus even begins this passage by instructing the crowd to do what the Pharisees teach them–just not what they actually do (23:3.) Jesus asks the Pharisees if the gold or the sanctuary that gives the gold significance, the gift or the alter that makes the gift sacred, is more important. Jesus is all about church buildings (he just didn’t say what those had to look like.)

He’s all about ritual too. In verse 23, he points out that the Pharisees have tithed spices, but neglected “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith,” but there is no indication that the spices or the act of tithing them are themselves bad. Rather, Jesus is pointing out that these “smaller” matters should be vitally connected to the weightier ones. Tithing should bring about justice, mercy, and faith. Religious practice must produce fruit.

If there is anything Jesus came to put an end to, it was practicing the law without that practice resulting in a spiritually full life, one that would abundantly bless others. I think if Bethke were to read this, he’d probably agree and say that was what he meant. Unfortunately, 16 million viewers have heard differently.

by Joel Harrison

Suspicion and Faith and Hating Mother Teresa

Christian reaction to the news of Christopher Hitchens’ death last night of complications due to cancer have certainly been mixed. Tweets jovially poking fun at the New Atheist read “ ‘Hitchens doesn’t exist anymore’—God.” Many more conservative Christians vindictively celebrate the death of someone whom they probably felt had backed them into a corner along with the other three (self-titled) Horsemen of New Atheism (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett.) Now one is gone. Just as they celebrated the death of Osama bin Laden, so they celebrate Hitchens’ untimely demise. Chalk one more up for us. It’s been a good year.

Then there are the more progressive Christians, mostly academics that I know, who are posting about how much Christopher Hitchens’ improved their faith. After all, we were all decrying belief in the same god—the god of fundamentalism, violence, and empire that is clearly not the God of the Israelites, of the Bible, of the universe. I have to agree with them. While I didn’t grow up in an ultra-conservative, fundamentalist home, I understand why my friends who did are grateful to Hitchens and the other New Atheists for exposing the flaws in a Christianity that has its grip on so many American Christians. The hermeneutics of suspicion can be quite powerful. And Hitchens, et al. are not the first to bring such glad tidings to Christians looking for a better way than the idols of their past. Freud, Nietzsche, Marx, Heidegger—many 19th and 20th century philosophers preceded the Horsemen pointing out many of the same flaws in believing in a god who would condone the violence perpetrated by fundamentalist religion. Of course, none of these philosophers nor the New Atheists believe that they’re freeing the religious from their own dogma so that they may experience a better, more robust faith. That’s beside the point here, however.

I hesitate in participating in either strand of response. The first for obvious reasons. It isn’t so much hesitation as refusal: Christians should never celebrate the death of another human being. And while I identify with friends who’d rather celebrate Hitchens’ life, in some ways seeming like a back-handed way of saying to atheists, “You have no idea what actual Christianity entails, let alone actual religion,” I have trouble celebrating the life of a man who made a career out of spitting venom at others. If he had been a Christian doing this to atheists or Muslims or anyone else, we would have been appalled. I recognize that Christianity abides in the sort of humiliation Hitchens and others seek to pile on to us—that above all, our call is to humility to the point of death (Matt. 16:24-25). But Hitchens’ vitriol went beyond just trying to prove how dumb religious people are.

The man hated Mother Teresa. He thought she was a complete fraud. On top of that, he ironically supported the Iraq Warbecause it was leading to the death of Islamic fundamentalists. What’s that saying about strange bedfellows? Fundamentalist Christianity could link arms with Hitchens and sing some songs together over that point. What we need to be careful of is not caving too quickly to the pressure of expectations. Atheists expect Christians to be celebrating, so those of us who do not identify with that group of Christians desire to distance ourselves quickly by talking about what a tragedy it is to lose someone so brilliant. It is certainly tragic to see someone die before his time, especially someone who did contribute fruitfully in some ways to the demolition of religious fundamentalism. I’m on his side in that. But I can’t ignore the rest. He was extremely misguided, not only in his account of history but in his responses to some important contemporary issues as well. I won’t celebrate that part of his life.

by Joel Harrison

Occupy Wall Street: Resist the Populist Temptation

Slavoj Zizek’s speech at Occupy Wall Street. Transcript here.

Ideologies at their purest: 1) Capitalism is bad, Socialism is good. Or, 2) Socialism is bad, Capitalism is good. Ideology is political drive minus fact and substance, the excrement of whatever you believe regardless of reality. I fully support the Occupy Wall Street protest. My concern is that it will only be left-wing version of inane populism that has infected the American right over the past three years. We don’t need more of this kind of populism. But that brings me to the question of how to define populism. What is it? How does it function?

A full two years before the Tea Party came onto the scene, Zizek predicted a post-Bush utlra-right populist movement, defined their characteristics, and gave a rough timeline of their rise and decline. I thought that was a little bit impressive. So while pondering the relationship between Occupy Wall Street and populism, I stumbled across Zizek’s article Against the Populist Temptation.

“The field of politics is thus caught in an irreducible tension between “empty” and “floating” signifiers: some particular signifiers start to function as “empty,” directly embodying the universal dimension, incorporating into the chain of equivalences which they totalize a large number of “floating” signifiers.” – Slavoj Zizek

The definition used here for populism is purely ideological- it depends on ambiguous signifiers. Politics within a democracy depends on ambiguous signifiers- it’s why we don’t trust the same politicians we campaign for. “Change We Can Believe In” was ambiguous- you could plug whatever meaning you want into it, but all it definitely meant was that you had already made up your mind you would be voting for Obama. Birtherism is another ambiguous signifier- it meant less that people were foolish enough to believe Obama was born in Kenya and more that they voted Republican.

Zizek doesn’t go into this in the article, but this type of belief in the signifier is the clinical definition of neurosis. It is the fixation on the symbol with indifference to the Real. Another way to say it is that the symbol holds the place of belief for you. Hashtag your social media with #some-cause, and you won’t have to define your own opinions. The opposite condition of neurosis is psychosis- the belief that your symbol is one and the same with the Real. The catch? You never know whether a belief is more neurotic or psychotic until evidence is irrefutable. Until the birth certificate was released, we had no way of knowing whether Birthers were truly insane or simply affirming their political loyalties. The result? Of the more than fifty percent of Republicans that said they doubted the President’s citizenship, a only a little more than a third were still Birthers after the birth certificate was released. Those people are the psychotics- the ones you should stay away from. The rest were just delving into neurosis- as we all do. What we will see in coming weeks is whether the Occupy movement has legitimacy and staying power, or else is just a psycho/neurotic blip on the radar.

“The first thing to note is that today’s populism is different from the traditional version – what distinguishes it is the opponent against which it mobilizes the people: the rise of “post-politics,” the growing reduction of politics proper to the rational administration of the conflicting interests… there is a constitutive “mystification” that pertains to populism: its basic gesture is to refuse to confront the complexity of the situation, to reduce it to a clear struggle with a pseudo-concrete “enemy” figure (from “Brussels bureaucracy” to illegal immigrants). “Populism” is thus by definition a negative phenomenon, a phenomenon grounded in a refusal, even an implicit admission of impotence.” -Zizek

The far right took a number of long-standing and arguably legitimate concerns but finally mobilized them against a mythical Marxist Muslim from Kenya-the shelf-life of a ridiculous founding myth makes for a quick expiration date. If Occupy Wall Street devolves into a psychotic blaming of bankers and stockbrokers, it will fail. If it blames an unqualified term like “capitalism” and advocates some extreme alternative, it will fail. If if continues to focus on policies to address and raises awareness among a public misguided by 24 hour propaganda masquerading as news, it just might get somewhere. I don’t mean to defend capitalism- we would do well to integrate a good dose of socialism into our irrevocably capitalist economy. And I do not at all mean we need to “find a third way” or any ridiculous nonsense such as this- I absolutely believe we need an actual left in this country to check the abuses of laissez-faire capitalism. I’ll put it this way: the bank CEO’s are praying to Mammon that you will demonize bank CEO’s- scapegoating keeps the system stable.

And please, remember to panic. Because SHIT IS FUCKED UP AND BULLSHIT!

by Tad Delay

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A Comment on the Death of Osama bin Laden

I’ll get right to the point. It saddens me that Christians would celebrate the death of another human being.

Such a reaction directly contradicts everything that we, as Christians, should value. The Bible tells us that God does not rejoice in the death of human beings, including wicked ones (Ezekiel 33:11, Proverbs 24:17-18).

Maybe even more convicting, though, is this: I don’t remember at all, in Jesus’ life and ministry, a moment where he kills an enemy, suggests that we kill our enemies, or rejoices in the death of an enemy.

Actually, Jesus allowed himself to be killed by his enemies. It was God’s will.

Furthermore, the celebration of bin Laden’s death really seems to be just an easy way around the terrifying reality of forgiveness. When we celebrate bin Laden’s death, we are limiting God. We’re saying that the power of God’s forgiveness and grace would not be enough to save someone like Osama bin Laden; therefore, the only thing to do is celebrate the death of a horrible human being. We have trouble accepting that even someone as horrible as bin Laden could be transformed by God’s love and grace.

How can we possibly claim to believe in an infinite, all-powerful God, if we do not believe He could transform and save Osama bin Laden? Isn’t God’s grace extended to everyone? Is there anyone in history whom we could ever say is not eligible for God’s grace?

It would be unbelievably arrogant to think we could.

There is only one death to celebrate: The death that defeated death.

by Joel Harrison

Why Westboro Baptist Church Could Be a Blessing (but won’t be), Why Batman is a Villain, and How Picasso’s “Guernica” Let Us Kill a Million People

On Thursday, March 3rd, the nation opened its news feeds and collectively wished we didn’t have a first amendment, as the Supreme Court upheld the free speech rights of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church. These are the bastards that go about protesting soldiers’ funerals, holding colorful “God Hates Fags” signs, and reminding us why America sucks: we’ve let the lib’ruls and the gays and perverts corrupt our children, and now God has it in for us.

I don’t particularly care about this Supreme Court ruling, but Westboro hits the news cycle about every other month, and this month happened to coincide with my reading of Slavoj Zizek’s How To Read Lacan. This combination got me thinking about the great potential we have (but which will never be realized) in the Westboro klan.

Repression and the Return of the Repressed are One – Jaques Lacan

When Colin Powel made the case for the Iraq invasion before the UN, the US delegation demanded that Picasso’s Guernica, which depicts the catastrophic German bombing of Spanish civilians, be removed. The US claimed it was not statesmanlike given the occasion, but of course this was a farce. The funny thing is that nobody would have noticed if a big deal had not been raised over it. When you repress, your repression returns the favor by cropping up in other ways (like how teetotalers discharge stress by becoming enourmous gluttons instead of alcoholics like normal people do).

Unwritten rules are the most insidious to break. Zizek imagines a story in which you are listening to a state speech during the Stalinist purges. A man stands during the speech and cries out, “Comrade Stalin, the government is corrupt!” As the guards close in on him, you stand and shout, “Comrade, be quiet you fool! Don’t you know that we don’t talk about the corruption?!” The guards will be sure to shoot you first. In the same way, when you pull out your driver’s license for the cop that pulls you over, you experience true horror when the cop, noticing you have let a hundred dollar bill slide our of your wallet with a wink, exclaims, “You are trying to bribe me?!” Plausible deniability exists until we name the unwritten rule, which is why we never name the unwritten rule. The exception to this rule is twofold: alcohol and Facebook- two things that remove our better social inhibitions and allow us to truly express the unconscious (much in the same way that to truly know somebody, you should see how they behave in a virtual Second Life, where the social inhibitions of unwritten rules are removed). Unwritten rules are so sacred that when we speak them aloud, or God forbid, break them, we commit the highest social sin. This is why Westboro spooks us.

Westboro believes God hates homosexuality, that gays have made a choice to live in immorality, and that America has turned its back on God (who is now pissed) with its liberal rights. They put the logical extent of religious ultra-right-wing belief into practice, evangelizing to lost culture as they enthusiastically carry their message forward. Is this not, more or less, what at least a third of America truly believes? The horror of Westboro is not that they believe God hates fags, but that they say God hates fags.

Belief doesn’t matter much. You can believe whatever you want. But, we unconsciously say, for the love of all that is sacred, don’t act as if you believe it.

This is the gift I claim that Westboro offers us. Their blessing is that we have a chance to recognize the horror of these beliefs, see them in ourselves, and repent, but we won’t. We wont recognize the plank in our own eyes as we judge them because of a second, far more insidious psychoanalytic concept from Freud.

Fetish Disavowal, or Why Batman is the Villain and Westboro is the (Potential) Hero

I would love to rewrite The Dark Knight to the tune of reality, where the Joker gets his way as Batman murders him while ferry passengers blow each other up. Bruce Wayne has the resources to recreate himself as a private, one-man, high tech army, and nobody notices. He has so much wealth that all he must do is sleep through a board meeting once a week, resting up to beat up bad guys on the weekend. This is why Batman is the true villain; instead of beating up bad guys, how much more good would be done in Gotham if his vast rescourses were used instead to fund job training, education, and so forth? But no, in order to mask his true potential (along with his horror and waste), he plays the part of a hero. This is pseudo-activity. The true enemy of progressive activity is not passivity, but this type of pseudo-activity which is expressed by Disavowing the horror of reality by redirecting attention into a Fetish symbol.

Again, Westboro should be a sign of the weakness of this ultra-rightist, religiously oppressive belief, but fetish disavowal will save the day.

I notice that some of the most outspoken critics of the Westboro Baptists are people who share the gist of their political belief (if not their expression). So what does one do when feeling anxiety due to people (whom you agree with) breaking the unwritten rules about what is acceptable to say? You sacrifice them!

So while the Westboro Baptists should be taken as a critique of religious oppression and fundamentalism, it is instead a symbol for millions of Americans to say, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain (my unconscious which agrees with them)! Instead, look at those angry zealots!”

And thus, Westboro will continue to be in the news, because we continually need to sacrifice in order to justify ourselves. Let Batman continue to play the hero, and please don’t point out the Guernica!

by Tad Delay

Read more from Tad at taddelay.com

Love Won

I received an email from my dad the other day as I was headed to my Monday night Contemporary Literature and Theology course that said this:

“I’m reading a book called ‘Love Wins’ by Rob Bell, who says he is a Fuller graduate – – do you know anything about this guy? – – the book is certainly non-traditional in its descriptions of heaven and hell.  Just thought you might have an insight.”

I love my dad, who is an engineer. Because of his engineer’s mind, he and I tend to think about things differently. Three years ago, as I was in the middle of my MA in English, he remarked in response to something I was saying, drawing a distinction between us: I’m an intellectual, and he is not. Since my dad is certainly one of the smartest people I know, I thought that to be interesting, something I had never considered before.

During my first quarter at Fuller, my dad asked me how I liked my classes and wanted to know what I was learning about. I started telling him about Nancey Murphy and non-reductive physicalism (the belief, essentially, that there is no such thing as a soul.) About three minutes in, he put his hand up to stop me and said, “Does this affect whether or not Jesus is our Savior?” I told him, no, it didn’t. “Okay,” he said, “as long as I don’t have to try to understand any of this stuff, then I’m okay.”

My dad wasn’t writing off what I was studying as not worthwhile—just as not of practical value to him. To be clear, this difference between us hasn’t been a point of tension in our relationship either. Lately he’s been marveling at the fact that currently two of his four sons are in graduate school studying things that are way over his head (a third is getting an MBA, which is right up his alley.) This difference between us has actually been fruitful in the sense that it has helped me to gauge whether or not a particular abstract idea (some hermeneutical tool, for example) would be helpful necessarily in practical application or at least to start to develop an idea of how it could become helpful someday.

I think that’s really important. One of the biggest problems I see as I sit in philosophy and systematic theology classes, have coffee with other like minded students, stay up late with my roommate smoking pipes around our fire pit, all the time discussing these lofty, invisible structures in our thought that lie behind and support practical concerns is that far too many people in the church still cling to modern ideology and ways of knowing, but they’re a long way off from seeing it. Many people will probably post comments on Church Unbound’s Facebook page under the link to this post, railing against me or Rob Bell without really reading this post or Bell’s book. Challenging the modern worldview is tantamount to challenging the reality of God Himself for many people. That’s one of the primary reasons Bell’s book has stirred things up so much: It’s a full frontal assault on that way of viewing the world. But the difficult issue for me becomes how to help people see that without dragging them through years of careful philosophical reflection and study. It’s not at all a matter of smart versus stupid—it’s a matter of intellectual versus practical.

I decided the very minute I heard about John Piper’s tweet (“Farewell, Rob Bell”) that even though I would be reading Love Wins, I wasn’t going to engage with it in a public forum like this or my blog for Fuller admissions. Other writers I know, either at Fuller or elsewhere, may have avoided it for similar reasons—we’re just not fans of drama here. Besides, Greg Boyd, Richard Mouw, and others have basically said all that needs to be said:

It’s a book that simply raises a question about something that is perhaps contradictory in Christian tradition and calls readers to seriously think about that question.

And somehow that is seen as heretical.

But then there’s my dad’s question.

Here I am, wrapped up in the culture of Christian pop-academia. I would venture to say that there are very very few people in my circles or on Fuller’s campus who do not know the name Rob Bell or who are not at least vaguely aware of what a controversial figure he is within Evangelical circles.

But then there’s my dad’s question.

My dad grew up in the church, coincidentally at Pasadena Covenant Church, where I now work. My mom is a Christian as well, growing up at Lake Avenue Congregational, down the street from PCC. They took my brothers and me to Sierra Madre Congregational. None of these churches lean very far in one direction or the other on the conservative/liberal scale. They’re pretty close to the middle. My parents now attend a church in Lafayette, CO called Flatirons Community Church—a place not unlike Rob Bell’s own congregation in size and style—which is also near the middle.

I responded to his email the next day, explaining who Bell is, what the controversy is over, and then pointed him to Boyd’s, Mouw’s, and [for a laugh] Donald Miller’s responses to Bell’s book. I told him that for me, the important thing Bell’s book does (and Bell really says as much in the preface) is not just to raise this one question about who is in hell and how we can know that but to raise a much larger question about where particular doctrine even comes from in the first place—something most Christians don’t really think about day to day.

My dad called me later that afternoon.

“I was going to email you, but then I thought I’d call,” he said. He thanked me for the links to the blog responses. He particularly liked Dr. Mouw’s.

And then he said something that I thought was profoundly important.

“It just seems to me,” he said, “that we can’t limit God by saying he will punish people in one particular way. We just don’t have enough information to know something like that. And I really like that phrase: Generous Orthodoxy.”

I realized then how vastly important Bell’s book and others like it could potentially be. My dad, a man with no particular academic or intellectual interest in his faith, who knew nothing of Bell or the controversy surrounding the book, just someone who simply cares about reflecting on his faith because he wants to grow spiritually—who saw the book at Costco and thought it sounded interesting—was able to grasp the thrust of Bell’s argument—the larger purpose at which he is driving. Somehow that gap between intellectual and practical was crossed. In my mind, that is an enormous victory for any kind of “postmodern” theological movement.

Rob Bell will obviously never see this blog, but someone needs to tell him that he has accomplished what he set out to do. Nice work, Mr. Bell.

by Joel Harrison

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