Friday, April 29, 2011

A post that's not really about the Royal Wedding

I drove home from Gateshead to Cardiff today, thinking that the world would be watching the Royal Wedding so the roads would be quiet.

Apparently much of the world had the same idea, with many people taking advantage of the extra day off to get in a long weekend away with the caravan. Unfortunately my idea of counting the caravans and camper vans to provide me with some blog fodder backfired, as I missed a motorway turn and so we ended up in Leicester.

(I counted 313 before the realisation that I was on the wrong road struck! That total includes 5 'Herbie Vans' - still the coolest campers ever.)

Anyway, that added about 30 minutes to our journey. Cathy did some first-class navigating to get us back on track.

I'm not sure I missed much by opting to drive than watch TV. I gather the bride wore a nice dress.

I have mixed feelings about the whole thing really. I'm kind of ambivalent - it's nice that they got married, but I don't always want to go to weddings of people I know, let alone strangers. (I don't mind the actual weddings - it's the hours of standing around waiting for photos to be taken and the interminable discos I can't really stand.)

But it's over now, and with any luck the world will return to some semblence of normality fairly quickly.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Threatened worldviews threaten other worldviews

I've been reading 'The Last Word and the Word After That' by Brian McLaren, that covers a lot of the same ground as 'Love Wins'. This struck me as a relatively good explanation for the criticisms levelled at Rob Bell during the recent "controversy".

" must engage with the culture in which is finds itself but... can become so excesively enmeshed with that culture that its power is neutralized - actually, neutered... If a faith becomes enmeshed, not just engaged with a culture... people hardly notice - until a wave of cultural change hits. Then, when people want to move on from that fading culture, when they want to be part of that new wave, they feel they must leave their faith behind as well. Their only alternative is to try to disengage their faith from the fading culture, but this is one of the most painful things a person can do - mentally painful, spiritually painful...

"In times of profound cultural change... such as our current transition from a modern colonial culture, with its emphasis on rational certainty and conquest and control, to a postmodern and postcolonial culture, which distrausts rational certainty because of the violence that confident people have inflicted on others in their striving to conquer and control them. In times like these, people, thousands at the same time, face this agonizing task of disengaging their faith from the culture it has grown with, like two trees whose roots are intertwined." [page 15, bold text mine]

It's no accident that the last colonial superpower left is the battleground between the modern and postmodern elements within Christianity. It's no surprise that those with the most to lose - the theocrats whose worldview is bound up in a scientific narrative that insists on one form of truth as supreme - are so vocal in their criticism of reformulation (and potential reformation).


Saturday, April 23, 2011

I used to really care about Facebook, now not so much

I'm much more about the Twitter now. Facebook has just got too full of other crap. I don't want to know that people have received fortune cookies, which awkward moments they identify with, or what their daily horoscope says.

You don't get as much of that on Twitter. (Spam followers, yes, but I'm developing a strategy to deal with those.)

So as I become a post-Facebook web-user, this cartoon resonated with me.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"Strange Opposites" - Similarities between forgiveness and violence

I’ve been touched recently by something Rob Bell said in his most recent book: “Forgiveness is unilateral.”

I’ve heard it said that forgiveness is the opposite of violence, but it’s a strange opposite because actually it is very similar to violence.

Violence is usually unilateral, too. It is very rare that both parties are equally violent on pre-agreed terms. There is normally an aggressor, even if the only aggression is provocation. If there is only perceived provocation, then the “provoked” is the aggressor. But, however much people may claim to be provoked, the decision to act violently is usually taken by one party.

But forgiveness is also unilateral. Like violence, it does not rely on the other person doing anything – as a ‘provocation’, or as a response. If a person won’t receive forgiveness, then that does not annul the forgiveness. They are still forgiven, whether they accept it or not. You have no control about another person’s decision to forgive you, just as you have no control over whether they will act violently towards you.

You can of course modulate your behaviour – be submissive in the presence of the violent, or actively seek forgiveness – but you can’t control it. And other people can’t control your choice. You choose to forgive, or to be violent.

There are other ways forgiveness is like violence. Both are more shocking when they are totally unexpected. Blitzkrieg was devastating because it was an unexpected form of attack. When a grieving parent forgives the killers of their child on the news, it is equally unexpected and shocking. Both acts provoke a response, and that response is heightened when you don’t expect it.

Both are self-replicating. There is a phrase that ‘Violence begets violence’; a truism seen at work all over the world. But there is another truism too. ‘If you’ve truly been forgiven, then you will forgive others’ is one of Christianity’s tough lines – but the point isn’t that you have to forgive when you don’t want to.

The point is that if you truly realise what it is to be totally forgiven for every mistake, every petty selfishness, every crime against other people, society or yourself, then that liberates you. Being forgiven enables you to forgive others.

But equally, both violence and forgiveness can be too easily forgotten. Currently, it seems the lessons learned from foreign policy in decades past are being ignored. The military option has become the ‘go to’ place in too many governments. But violence in the past didn’t work. And we forget that.

When we forget about forgiveness, disaster usually follows too. The parable of the two debtors – one forgiven a large sum, but then extorting a small sum they are owed reminds us that we should never forget our standing before God. We are one side-step away from judgement and we will be judged brutally if we act brutishly.

When we forget we are forgiven, then we forego forgiving others – and forfeit our own forgiveness.

And finally, violence and forgiveness can both become a way of life. Anger, aggravation and aggression can become our default settings. The more we act that way, the less of an act it becomes – it becomes the way we are, it is how we do things, it’s what we will be in future.

But forgiveness can also be a way of life. It can be how we are – holding grievances lightly or not at all. In the words of Linkin Park, we can choose to remember what is good about a person and “leave out all the rest”. When we do that we are living a life of forgiveness. It has become the way we are, it permeates what we do, it holds out hope for who will be in future.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Burger shack irony

McDonald’s are running a promotion at the moment where you can instantly win food through finding certain pull-off labels on their fries, sodas, burgers etc.

Last night, Cathy and I were feeling uninspired about cooking and I needed to be out at a meeting early evening, so we went to MaccyD’s. I like mystery prize instant win competitions, but I felt the universe was trying to send me a message through my prize.

I won a fruit bag.

Slightly powdery apple slices and three grapes.


Healthy never tasted so disappointing.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Contender for best spam ever

I get a lot of spam comments on freelance theology. This one entertained me immensely:

This is NOT SPAM, all I am asking you to do is read this…PLEASE and pass it along. This is a TRUE UPDATE on the Gulf Coast BP Oil Spill!!

Have you ever heard of Whipple Van Ness Jones, III?
Probably not, unless you watch the CBS daytime soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful.

You see, according to Wikipedia….
Whipple Jones III is a fictional character on CBS’s daytime drama The Bold and the Beautiful. He had been portrayed by Rick Hearst from February 13, 2002 to August 29, 2002 and was absent for nearly seven years before returning to the show on July 17, 2009….
However, what they don’t tell you is that Whipple Van Ness Jones, III is a real person.
Whip resides in NW Florida with his wife, 3 children, and pets.
The problem is that when the BP oil spill happened Whip and his family lost their family business in Seaside, Florida the name of the store was Molly Caroline’s named after his two daughters Georgia Caroline and Molly Catherine (Whipple Van Ness Jones, IV wasn’t born yet when they opened their store).
Whip loved the idea that The Bold and the Beautiful named a character after him, he thought it was fun because obviously how else would they come up with the EXACT SAME NAME for the show.
Whip contacted the show early on (sent a copy of his birth certificate and drivers license), they didn’t offer any money (and Whip didn’t ask for any), just an autograph from the star portraying him.

The problem is NOT that Whip has a character on a show, the problem is Whip and his family lost their main source of income due to the BP oil spill.

Now when Whip applies for a job, and the employment places run a reference check on him and find a Wikipedia article calling Whip a fictional character on CBS’s daytime drama The Bold and the Beautiful, they claim he is using the name of a soap opera character…

What Whip did was start his own dot com….and is allowing people to post blogs on his site for free, just to show that he is a real person.
Google does give Whip a TINY amount to have ads on the right hand side of his webpage.
Please pass this along to your friends to show that Whipple Van Ness Jones, III is not only a real person, but a man trying to keep food on his family’s table.

Thank you!!
PS- Whip and his family did put in a claim with BP, they just haven’t heard anything yet. AS OF MARCH 24, 2011

PPS- Also, some people consider CBS to have BORDERLINE stolen Whip’s identity. Whip doesn’t see it this way, but how would you feel if you couldn’t get a job based on what Wikipedia says about you????
I don't even know what they want me to do about it.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Laughter Links

There are some funny cartoons out thar in the world wide web (remember when we called it that!)

Topical in the Christian sub-culture at the moment: ASBO Jesus meets Rob Bell

Dan Piraro takes a look at evangelising (and wants people to stop hitting him up for money for mission trips)

Basic Instructions is, basically, awesome. Here is an explanation of How to Give Constructive Criticism

And, finally, a newly-discovered probably-will-become-a-favourite-of-mine webcomic site chock full of comic book geekery and mocking idiots who deserve it: Our Valued Customers.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

A more personal review of Love Wins

As a follow up to my previous post, which was more of an examination of the theology in Love Wins, I decided to post about how I felt reading it.

Firstly, it resonated with me because many of the questions he asks are questions I've asked. Reconciling the idea of a loving, all-powerful God with the view that God condemns millions of created beings to hell is a difficult one.

It's a difficulty that I saw articulated years ago by Scott Adams in a cartoon about not mixing logic and religion. "What happens to the people that don't knowthat God loves all his children?" asks the protagonist. "Eternal hell!" is the response. That cartoon has always challenged me.

(Of course, Calvin's response to the exact same issue was that God sends people to Hell as evidence of His glory. (Section 3.22.11 of the Institutes) I've never felt particularly comfortable with that, ever since I read Calvin at University. The idea that our view of God as holy and glorious and righteous is contingent on him sending sinners to Hell makes God's attributes only applicable through the actions of human beings. Or, to put it another way, Calvin's articulation of God is that He is not self-sufficient.)

What I felt reading Love Wins was that here was someone else articulating many things that I've thought before, particularly the idea that an obsession about where you end up after death means you end up ignoring the realities of the here and now.

I think Rob Bell does a good job of evaluating Jesus' teaching on heaven and hell, and the commentary of the early church. I think he is fair to the Scriptural texts and his exposition of the original Greek is actually quite good. It's not the usual kind of thing I've heard in evangelical contexts, but that doesn't necessarily make it wrong.

I was particularly struck by his use of the parable of the prodigal son to highlight the negative images many Christians have of God - as a 'slave-driver', constantly looking over our shoulder to catch us out, and us not rejoicing in always being with him.

I think that chapter is actually a very good corrective to how God is talked about - his comment when talking about the atonement that Jesus doesn't save us from God, but that God saves us from the hell we create for ourselves is a good counterbalance to other technical theories of atonement that imply God is all about the wrath.

There were one or two throwaway remarks I wasn't happy with. Saying that a woman wrote Hebrews is a definite statement on a subject that from a Biblical Studies standpoint is hard to make definite statements on. There were one or two comments about people who hold a rigid view on hell (as not throwing good parties, for example) that were a bit needless. But generally, he reigned in the sarcasm.

The general tenor of the book - that we create heaven and hell through our choices and that affects how we live now and in the world to come reminded me of CS Lewis in The Great Divorce. I wish he had referenced Lewis' book, as it's not that well-known.

His comment on the literal nature of hell, based on his experience of seeing amputee survivors of the Rwandan genocide, is an intelligent way of taking something that can be quite theoretical and applying it. "Do I believe in a literal hell? Those weren't metaphorical limbs..." And then, later: "We can all choose to pick up machetes." Earlier he said "Our eschatology shapes our ethics." That's true too.

In that sense his realised eschatology is more realistic and relevant than the idea that it all happens after judgement. I've believed for a while that we need to start locating heaven and hell in the here and now to render them real. I said as much last year when talking to the youth.

For me, personally, it's been a bit of a journey to get where I am, theologically. On the subject of hell, I was helped by an insight of Frederick Buechner who made the point that if someone choose to withdraw from God, then they are withdrawing from the source of all things. That way leads to utter destruction or non-existence.

Buechner asked whether Hell was the stopping point - that God says 'You can go so far and no further'; that God wouldn't allow people to tip over the edge and cease to exist. Seen like that, Hell is an extension of God's mercy and love, because however far people run from him, he won't let them disappear forever.

I don't think Rob Bell's book was really written for those who are in churches and are happy with what's taught there. I think it's more for those who are unhappy, or who have left a church because they sense there is a discrepency between the emphasis on God's love, and the way hell is talked about.

What Rob Bell has done is offer an alternative view, that I feel is faithful to the Biblical texts, and presents a positive and affirming view of God as a loving Father. It made me feel hopeful and inspired to talk about my faith experiences with people to try and open up the reality of the Kingdom of  Heaven right now.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Rob Bell, Love Wins, and Controversy - a review by someone who has actually read the book!

I’ve seen several blog posts about the controversy over Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, but unlike them I decided to wait and post until I’d read the book. I’m sure showing such patience to comment, commend or condemn isn’t unique. But it feels like it.

Predictably the fact that Rob Bell decided to write a book about Hell raised some hackles among the more conservative fundamentalist elements within churchianity. You’d expect that, firstly because he’s Rob Bell and some people seem to hate him on the basis that he’s successful and they’re not, and secondly, because those conservative fundamentalist elements don’t like people asking annoying questions.

And the questions in Love Wins are annoying. They are vexing questions. I’m not saying I’m in any way of the calibre of Rob Bell, but they are questions I’ve had for years about the conservative theology I grew up with, and asking those questions is probably why I don’t swim in that particular direction any more.

I had a suspicion, from the interweb argey-bargey, that most of what appears in the book wouldn’t be particularly new or spectacularly different from what many Christians believe already. And I was right.

Sure, Rob has put a spin on it and couched it in cleverly simple terms to articulate it in a way that makes people think, but it is pretty basic stuff. True, there are some comments that hyper-Calvinists would get steamed about, but that’s because hyper-Calvinism isn’t a particularly coherent theology but desperately wants to be. (I’ll explain that some other time.)

In a way it’s just a realised eschatology with a dimension that says the eschaton starts now and continues beyond this life. It’s exactly the sort of thinking about heaven and hell as modes of being that you find in CS Lewis’ parable, The Great Divorce. And he makes some good points about how concentrating on heaven and hell just as other places misses the reality of what our choices can create here and now. (His comment on the literalness of hell in the context of Rwanda is particularly insightful.)

A big criticism is that Rob Bell is preaching universalism. He’s not. At best he’s advocating inclusivism, which is left-of-centre, admittedly, but it’s not universalism. That his critics don’t get that is either due to them preferring to label things they don’t understand as heresy, or because they’re wilfully misrepresenting him.

Or to be more blunt, they’re either thick or trying to smear him with bad theology he doesn’t own.

And anyway an inclusivist position isn’t at odds with reformed theology at all. Many active reformed theologians activate Barth’s get-out clause that Jesus was the only member of the elect. Admittedly most of those theologians aren't that well-known by 'ornery churchgoers in the Bible Belt, but it's still true.

There is of course, the “Biblical” argument. But there is little in the Bible to justify the doctrine of Hell the way it is taught in many places. At least Bell is being honest enough to admit that. And he does address the paltry number of texts that do exist and makes the point (that I’ve often made to people) that Jesus only ever really threatens religious and powerful people with hell; not those who are ‘sinners’ in the eyes of the religious.

That may upset some people, but then they really ought to take it up with Jesus. It's seems a bit harsh to criticise Rob Bell for Jesus' dodgy theology.

Rob does ask whether the decision point is only available this side of death. Belief in post-mortem opportunities for salvation isn’t uncommon in Christian theology. (Again The Great Divorce comes to mind.) Rob makes a case for it, but not a totally conclusive one. However, the points he raises are worth considering.

Where he does diverge from the Reformed position, is in his elevation of human choice. His central thesis is that God loves people so much he gives them freedom to choose heaven or hell as modes of being. That’s why he’s not a universalist, incidentally, because he holds that some people will always choose hell. A true universalist is a predestinarian as much as John Calvin was.

He ends the book with an interesting dissection of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, drawing out the different attitudes of the people at the party at the end of the parable. They prodigal and the elder brother are at the same party, but for one it’s heaven, and for the other it’s hell.

It’s a clever idea, to say that heaven and hell are actually the same place, and the difference is us. But, again, it’s not that original. The Eastern Orthodox mystics said the same thing – that in the bosom of the Father, people will experience either joy or disgust, depending on whether they love God or not.

As I said at the top of this article, it seems most people’s issue with the Rob Bell book isn’t with his answers, but with his chutzpah to ask questions and challenge the dominant narrative of reformed / evangelical / fundamentalist Christianity – the narrative that says a wrathful God will send non-believers to hell.

Rob Bell’s view of God and human futures is more positive. His real crime, perhaps, is that he has stepped out of the powerful American evangelical ghetto, widened his reading to include wisdom from other Christian traditions, and then returned to the ghetto in the hope that he can challenge the dominant narrative.

Some other things I’ve noticed from this:

There seems to be a link between individuals who emphasise judgement and are also quite judgemental themselves. Has anyone else noticed that?

There does seem to be a tendency to attack independent thought, especially if ‘successful’ church leaders are doing the thinking. If it wasn’t Rob Bell saying this, there wouldn’t be so much fuss.

For example, Zondervan’s new counterpoints range of books includes a ‘Four Views on Hell’ title, indicating the range of opinions within Christian theology on the topic. Nobody is shouting from the rooftops about this, or boycotting their local bookshop about it, probably because none of the contributors are particularly famous.

I bought the Counterpoints: Salvation in a Pluralistic World from my local evangelical bookshop for two reasons. Firstly, it looked interesting, and secondly, it had a piece in there from liberal theologian John Hick advocating a pluralist position. I’ve been profoundly challenged by Hick. I think he is wrong, and I’m working on working out why he’s wrong. But I’m glad he wrote it and I don’t think he’ll go to hell for it.

Differences of opinion challenge us, shape us and frame us. Without the impetus of debate, growth is stunted.

Rob Bell, for whatever faults can be found in Love Wins (and I found a few typos!), has at least provided a thoughtful, thought-provoking sideways look at a big topic.

Saturday, April 02, 2011


35 years young today. Many of my birthday presents reflect my maturity. A Clone Wars action figure of a teenage Boba Fett; 2 small Futurama figures; and plenty of Lego.

Cathy gave me a set of three Lego figures that she constructed herself at the hive of awesomeness that is the Lego Shop. As she was putting them together she got talking to another woman selecting Lego heads, bodies and legs to create some figures.

"How old's yours?" asked the woman. "Mine's 35!"

"Mine's 35 on Saturday," said Cathy.

See, I'm not the only one!