Rob Bell, Celebrity Culture and Univeralism(?)

February 28, 2011 at 7:58 am

I wasn’t feeling well on Saturday so I laid down for a minute and browsed the social networking blogosphere. As is often the case, everyone was talking about the same thing. This time, it was Justin Taylor’s post: “Rob Bell: Universalist?” Taylor wondered aloud whether Rob Bell had crossed outside the bounds traditional orthodoxy, embracing Universalism. Taylor laments:

So on that level, I’m glad that Rob Bell has the integrity to be lay his cards on the table about  universalism. It seems that this is not  just optimism about the fate of those who haven’t heard the Good News, but (as it seems from below) full-blown hell-is-empty-everyone-gets-saved universalism.

On the publisher’s page for the book, Brian McLaren endorses it saying:

In Love Wins, Rob Bell tackles the old heaven-and-hell question and offers a courageous alternative answer. Thousands of readers will find freedom and hope and a new way of understanding the biblical story – from beginning to end.

Taylor also included the promotional trailer for the book:

LOVE WINS. from Rob Bell on Vimeo.

The reaction in many of the circles I travel was loud and almost universal, with people saying things like: are you really surprised Rob Bell isn’t a Christian after all, or At least Rob Bell is honest about his move to heresy. Now, let’s be clear: the book is not even out yet so we don’t exactly know what his argument will be. Couple this with the fact that Bell has a habit of making very provocative statements and then somewhat backing away from them, back towards orthodoxy and there is some reason still to be hopeful. However, with the endorsements of Brian McLaren and Jay Bakker recommending the book on Facebook, that hope may be for naught. Couple this with the fact that, for years, Bell has been vocally downplaying the wrath of God and the picture looks bleaker still.

What are we to make of all of this? After all, we’ve got a lot of internet controversy about a book that hasn’t even been released yet. On one hand, we have people crying “Heretic!” and on the other, saying things like: “it’s about time Christianity was rescued from the ‘far-right.” Here’s some random thoughts:

  • Bell Is A Master Performer

Whatever Bell’s theology may or may not currently be, he sucked us all into his PR machine. He does what he does extremely well and here we all are, discussing a book that hasn’t even been released yet because he had it endorsed by Brian McLaren and he released an “edgy” video. To be honest, this is a book I probably wouldn’t otherwise have read, but now, as a pastor, I probably will, just so I’m aware when people ask me what’s in it. Well done, Mr. Bell.

  • We/I Are/Am Far Too Quick To Judge

Bear With me here. I’m not defending Bell but neither am I ready to burn him at the stake as a heretic. But, I must admit that my tendency is to make judgments without having all the facts. I haven’t read the book yet and I was ready to make theological conclusions about an argument that hasn’t even been made yet (at least explicitly).

This often seems to flow (at least for me) from an air of superiority. We are quick to judge because we are so sure we are right. It’s easier to pronounce judgment than it is to listen. This can manifest itself in daily conversation (have you ever stopped listening to someone because you were already sure where they were wrong and you were just waiting for the appropriate time to cut them off so you could tell them where they were wrong? No? That’s just me?) and is most often displayed in theological conversation. Again, I’m not saying Bell is right, just that we should read the book first.

Though I am extremely wary of where it seems Bell is heading, I have been humbly reminded that I am far too quick to speak and much too slow to listen. This is all the more important when dealing with such important issues. I fell into Bell’s publicity-making trap and I should have known better. For all his quiet demeanor, he certainly likes to stir things up and that seems to be exactly what he intended to do with this video. If anything, he succeeded in reminding me of my quick-natured tendencies.

  • Theology is Inescapably Important

It’s telling that so many people (on both sides) of this issue are so vocal. But the truth is that theology matters. As A.W. Tozer famously said: “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” Bell is making arguments of eternal importance. As Bell points out in the promotional video, the “question behind the question” is what kind of God we worship.

Though we are probably too quick to judge, it is encouraging that so many people are so passionate about theological issues. When I grew up, deep theological consideration was often downplayed in the midst of anti-intellectualism trends in Christianity. That trend seems to have subsided and it is encouraging to see people asking lots of hard questions. Let’s pray for the humble discernment to answer them according to Scripture and now our own sentimental interpretations of what a “loving God” should be like.

  • The Cross Is The Center of Theology

Bell’s assertions are not just about eternity but ultimately about the Cross. If Bell is truly arguing that everyone will be saved, then he must either argue that the Cross is not necessary or that we are all somehow saved by the Cross. As C.S. Lewis argued: if the Cross pays for all sin, then it also pays for the sin of unbelief. What was or was not accomplished at the Cross?

Bell is also asking a fundamental question (at least in the promotional video) about what salvation is or is not. He almost half-handedly (though with Bell, everything is intentional) asks whether or not someone must be “born again” to enter Heaven. This is more than just a passing comment and it seems to question clear Scriptural teaching (John 3:3, etc.). Bell seems to be questioning fundamental issues of traditional, orthodox Christianity itself.

  • Gandhi Really Trips People Up

It’s interesting that Bell begins his promotional video by gasping at the fact that someone had the audacity to assert that Gandhi is in hell. After all, here we have a man who embodied more Christian ideals than many Christians and yet famously noted that, though he liked Jesus, he didn’t care much for Christians. We’re often left wondering what to do with him.

But, as Bell might say, the “question behind the question” of Gandhi is: who are we to say that “good people” don’t go to Heaven? There is an exclusive element to Christianity that makes many of us quite uncomfortable. We don’t like to think of someone like Gandhi facing God’s judgment. After all, look at all the good he did, right?!

  • Christian “Celebrity Culture” Makes This All The More Sticky

Let’s be honest, if Rob Bell wasn’t a “celebrity pastor,” this wouldn’t be an issue for anyone outside his immediate sphere of influence. But as it is, his beliefs have impact for people all over the world. Though Christians should strive for equality, our tendency to want our own celebrities makes a single person’s theological beliefs ripple across the world.

The Habañero Hour Episode 14

February 24, 2011 at 7:35 am

Hh 14Featured artist: Justin McRoberts. Music from Johnny Cash, Grant Green, Mavis Staples, Dustin Kensrue, Jon Foreman and many more. Experience the aural goodness that is Episode 14 of the Habañero Hour. Prepare for exposure to extreme awesomeness.

Welcome to Episode 14 of the Habañero Hour, the occasional music/interview podcast of Brent Thomas and Mark Whiten where we dissect and rearrange the idea of “Christian” music. We introduce you to artists we know and love and we talk to some of them along the way as well. We hope you enjoy and we’d love to hear from you. And, please, tell your friends. World domination is not possible without a little cooperation.

Episode 14 Tracklist:

  1. “Do The Regret” by Lorien
  2. “Heart” by Iamwe
  3. “Growing Pains” by I Can Make A Mess Like Nobody’s Business
  4. “Head Like A Hole” by Justin McRoberts
  5. “Wonderful Savior” by Mavis Staples
  6. “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” by Grant Green
  7. “Ain’t No Grave” by Johnny Cash
  8. “Come To Jesus” by Mindy Smith
  9. “Religion Poisons Everything” by Justin McRoberts
  10. “Consider The Ravens” by Dustin Kensrue
  11. “White As Snow” by Jon Foreman
  12. “Deep Calls To Deep” by Lenny Smith
  13. “Did I Step On Your Trumpet?” by Danielson

Sufjan Explains “The Age of Adz”

February 23, 2011 at 10:56 am

There’s an interesting relationship that sometimes develops between musicians and listeners, especially if a musician writes “confessional” or emotional music. Listeners listen because we can connect with what’s being said; we can relate, and when it’s really good, we can learn about ourselves and our world in the music created by others.

But this can turn sour when the listener feels any sort of ownership over the music or the artist. Because music can be such a powerful force, listeners can often develop a strong attachment and even believe that they have a sense of ownership to the work.

But, what happens when the musician doesn’t want to be tied down and defined and drastically changes their “style”? Do listeners have the right to feel “betrayed” (I don’t think so, just to be clear, but that’s how I heard one person describe their reaction to Sufjan Stevens’ newest album)?

Sufjan Stevens recently shook up the expectations of his fans with his latest release The Age of Adz, ditching his pastoral, confessional, banjo-driven explorations for largely electronic work. For long-time fans, this is not a drastic change, but a return to the roots of his earliest albums, but for those who only came to know him through the “state” albums, it was a drastic departure.

Here, Stevens explains the inspiration behind the new work. It’s up to you whether or not it connects with you, but let the artist explore (thanks to Aaron Spiro for pointing this out).

Music Friday: The Seryn Edition

February 18, 2011 at 10:12 am

I haven’t done a Music Friday post in quite a while, but it’s time to break the silence. It should be no secret to you or anyone else that I love music. I listen to a lot of new music and I’m always looking for the ones that just “stick;” the ones that are, while being new, somehow also familiar, like they should have been part of your life all along.

As you might imagine, those bands are few and far between. I mean, I like a lot of music, but those bands that find themselves on repeat are pretty rare around here. I recently came across one such band: Denton TX’s (also the home of my favorite and yours, Doug Burr): Seryn. Imagine if Fleet Foxes, Nickel Creek, Anathallo and Lost In The Trees decided to see what all of their sounds were like together. That’s the closest you might come to an adequate descriptor of this bands sound. Soaring harmonies, ukulele (which I’m usually opposed to simply on principal of being gimmicky), violin and banjo come together in one enthralling package.

Though it’s still (very) early in the year, I have a hard time not seeing the band’s recently released This Is Where We Are near the top of my favorite albums for this year. If it were a record, it would already be worn out. I realize that you may not have the same musical taste as me, but come on, what’s not to love here!

Here is the band performing “Beach Song” for Violitionist


Here’s the band in a living room singing “On My Knees:”


Here’s the official promotional video for their new album This Is Where We Are:

Seryn: “This Is Where We Are” from Jon Todd Collins on Vimeo.

  • Visit Seryn’s official page (yes, they’re still using Myspace, don’t hold it against them)

The Weekly Town Crier

February 18, 2011 at 8:21 am

Hi. How are you? I hope you’re well. I’m OK. I’ve been a bit under the weather lately, haven’t been feeling well. Really stuffed up, achey and such, but I’ll be alright, thanks. How are you? In the meantime, welcome to The Weekly Town Crier, a place where I collect links and you click on them and we all live happily ever after, stuffy noses and all.

Be my friend on Facebook.

Follow me on Twitter.

Subscribe to our occasional music/interview podcast The Habañero Hour in iTunes.

Follow the Habañero Hour on Twitter for regular music/arts news updates, podcast and Phoenix house show announcements.

Become a fan of The Habañero Hour on Facebook for even more goodies and to help spread the love and world domination.

New Radiohead.

Read the truth about search optimizations.

Read about Rhianna being sued for copying.

Browse Bonnaroo’s 2011 lineup.

Read: did This American Life uncover the secret “Coke” recipe?

Read this piece arguing that the cultural attitude towards homosexual marriage has shifted.

Read Rob Bell’s piece for CNN about how suffering helped shape his faith.

Read as Barna questions whether society supports “Christian” brands.

Read/Listen as NPR interviews PJ Harvey.

Read/Listen as NPR profiles The Civil Wars.

See Christians in Egypt protecting Muslims during prayer.

Read about the controversy surrounding Chik-Fil-A.

Check out the new “mature rated” EP, “Love” by Aaron Spiro.

Read about the rogue tweet from the inattentive Red Cross employee bragging about drinking Dogfish Head beer.

Browse Wired‘s list of five toys no child should ever be without.

R.I.P. Borders.

Read an interview with Makoto Fujimara on the awesome “Four Holy Gospels” project.

Read details about the new album from Deathcab for Cutie.

Read about Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Magnum making rare solo appearances.

Read why God’s love is “better than unconditional.”

See the new Radiohead video “Lotus Flower.”

The Mercy Seat/The War Promotional Video

February 14, 2011 at 9:43 am

My friend Steve McCoy pointed out this promotional video for the Jamie Barnes/Brooks Ritter split EP through Sojourn Music (read my thoughts here and Steve’s thoughts here). Check out the great video:

Preview For The Mercy Seat-The War Split EP from Sojourn Community Church on Vimeo.

But, What Other Cart Is There?

February 14, 2011 at 8:07 am

Yesterday, on my way to Gathered Worship with Church of the Cross, I found myself behind a car (I was going to make a snide remark about it being a politically-correct hybrid model, but I’ll refrain) with the following bumper sticker: When politics and religion ride in the same cart the whirlwind follows.

I took the bumper sticker to mean that we get a mess when people mix their religion and politics. Please correct me if you understand it to mean something else (as I know my faithful readers are sure to do!). I have to be completely honest: this kind of thinking puzzles me.

The notion behind such a statement seems to be that we are segmented, compartmentalized people who can have some sort of “religious” belief (not necessarily faith) that does not affect our political decisions, and what’s more, we should be able to keep those parts of our lives separate. So, whatever your personal beliefs on a given topic might be, your personal, “religious beliefs” will not affect your political decisions.

On one hand, I can understand where this man was coming from (yes, I looked to see who was driving. Heaven forbid I just make assumptions that it was a man/woman based on the car and sticker). If he does not happen to share someone else’s religious persuasion then it would make sense that he doesn’t want public policy dictated by those other, perhaps opposing beliefs.

But, on the other hand, isn’t that what “democracy,” or at least being a “republic” is all about; compromise? And, on the other, other, hand (yes, I know that’s three hands), do we really want someone making public policy decisions for us who doesn’t have enough conviction in their personal beliefs to let them drive his/her policy decisions? What’s more (or, on the other, other, other hand), what makes us think that we can really compartmentalize our beliefs in such a manner? Isn’t the point of having faith convictions that they color your entire life? How have we come to accept this notion of the private vs. public person?

This is certainly not a new issue. I remember when Bill Clinton was in the midst of impeachment hearings and several politicians came to his defense saying that just because he lied to his wife about possible improper relations, that didn’t mean he wasn’t a good president. I remember thinking: well, yes, it does. A liar is a liar. If you lie to your wife, why wouldn’t you lie to the whole country?!

This notion that our beliefs and convictions can be compartmentalized is simply ludicrous. We are whole people and if someone’s faith convictions don’t impact their public policy decisions then I don’t want them making public policy for the rest of us because they don’t really believe what they claim to believe and they can’t be trusted. After all, if our beliefs about God, humanity, sin, salvation and the destiny of all creation don’t impact our daily decisions, are they really worth holding in the first place?