November 26, 2007
Heresy on Tour?
Popular pastor/author Rob Bell’s controversial message: God loves you.
When the babysitter arrived the night before Thanksgiving, she asked of our plans for the evening. Last week it was a concert, and three weeks before that we were headed to dinner and a movie. Tonight, my wife and I were going to?. I stumbled for words to describe Rob Bell's latest tour. I could tell by her eyes that she stopped caring about thirty seconds before I stopped trying to describe the event.
Bell's "the gods aren't angry" tour packed about two thousand souls into Raleigh's Memorial Auditorium for what wound up being a 90 minute sermon.
Bell is a popular writer, speaker and pastor, and I found it easy to see why he's so popular. As a friend commented after the event, "The dude has some mad communication skills." Wearing an all black outfit (save a bright white belt) that could have placed him as a member of Green Day, Bell presented an insane amount of information in a style that held my attention and quickened my spirit.
In a nutshell, Bell talked about how humans ? since the earliest cavewoman and caveman ? try to appease the forces that bring or withhold life. These human attempts led to formation of god concepts and religious practices, which grew ever more sacrificial and eventually led people to harm self and sacrifice children in bold attempts to assuage anxiety about the gods' opinions of us. Like some sort of Ken Burns without a camera, Bell incorporated tons of tidbits and insights from history, cultural anthropology, theology, sociology and literature to weave a compelling story of religiosity that's led to the anxiety-riddled human condition wherein we wonder, "Have I done enough?"
Into this system where humans guessed at what the gods want and then trying to give it, God spoke to Abram. Now the deity did the initiating. And the word from God was for Abram to forsake his father's household: which Bell equated with forsaking the old system of trying to appease the gods. Rather than trying to bless the gods, Abram's role was to be blessed by God. This was big revelation number one.
According to Bell, big revelation number two came in Leviticus. He said that this strange and seemingly backward third book of the Bible is best understood as a gift from God to help alleviate people's anxieties. Rather than leave us guessing and grasping for some elusive set of conditions by which God would be pleased, God presented Abram's lineage with an exact recipe for living and sacrificing, thus removing all doubt that God was not angry with them.
Bell said that big revelation number three came in Jesus. The sacrificial system outlined in Leviticus became corrupt and only led to more anxiety than it relieved. So at just the right time, God revealed that he never really needed our sacrifices anyway. Using quite a bit of humor, irony and pure wit, Bell painted a caricature god who is not complete without what people can provide or perform. Using various sayings from Psalms, Micah, Jesus, Paul's letters and Hebrews, he drew an alternate picture of the divine: a God who is not dependent on what we do, but who freely loves and pours blessing on us.
The problem, according to Bell, is not that God is angry with us, but that we think God is angry with us. Thus, Jesus' purpose wasn't to change God's mind about us, but to change our mind about God: to notify us of God's lack of anger and to free us from the prison of our misconceptions so that we can truly live well. The place of church and religious ritual is to remind us of our standing with God and freedom to live lives of sacrifice and service.
This tour stop still has me thinking. The sense I got from Bell is that the whole problem to be solved is a mental one: people are not aware of the already-true fact that God is not angry with them. I'm wrangling with the notion that what Jesus changed is not God's opinion of me, but my opinion of God. For some reason, this makes me think of Jesus as a Post-It note from God telling us what has been true rather than making it true. I'm ready to dismiss this as too insignificant, except that Bell convinced me that the alternatives leave us with a small god who needs sacrifice to be appeased.
I'm not ready to canonize Rob Bell, nor am I ready to fire up the Driscollian flame thrower and burn him a heretic. I chalk up my questions and concerns to the fact that no sermon ? even a 90-minute one delivered with incredible veracity ? can cover everything.